Case 2013

Athens 17, 18 & 19 October 2013

Rethinking planning law in the crisis era: New scope, new tools, new challenges

For the responses to this case, click here.

1. Introduction
The on-going European sovereign debt crisis, along with the global financial crisis of the late 2000s and the consequent global recession, have hit, among other policy areas, the world of planning. Although there are considerable differences in the manifestation of economic crisis across countries, there seem to be common trends in the ways planning is being affected or even reformed in times of crisis. Government downsizing and reduction of public expenditures, loss of confidence in the old models of urban development and housing finance, increasing privatization and outsourcing of planning powers and planning services to private firms and non-profit organizations and foundations, along with a shift of planning objectives towards the promotion of economic growth, competitiveness and entrepreneurialism, seem to be among the most important effects of the crisis in the field of planning. Within this new context, the role and the instruments of planning seem to be questioned and even reengineered in many countries.

It is the aim of this Conference to identify, analyze and compare changes in national planning laws and policies as a consequence, among other reasons, of the economic crisis. To this end, the Conference will focus on three major themes-developments that are considered critical for comparative discussion and research.

2. Shifts in the role and scope of planning: from spatial ordering to spatial development? 
Traditional planning was mostly turned on spatial ordering. In this respect, statutory urban and regional plans were, most frequently, directed towards anticipating growth, protecting the countryside and natural resources, and providing services and infrastructure. National planning laws, under this model, used static zoning techniques and maps to plan land-use and achieve equilibrium among different, and sometimes competing, land-uses and corresponding interests. The focus of planning, within this context, was to control and restrict rather than to facilitate development.

In recent years, however, especially after the economic crisis, new attitudes to planning are emerging worldwide. The need to achieve economic recovery in order to reduce economic uncertainty, unemployment and poverty, along with the need to provide competitive and attractive spaces for investment and business, are driving national planning policies towards more development-oriented and entrepreneurial directions. Within this new international economic and social context, the role and the scope of planning are changing. Planning has to reinvent itself in order to become more positive and effective, enabling thus development instead of only regulating it.

3. Shifts in the shape and function of planning tools: from rigidity to flexibility?
Traditional planning was mostly based on regulatory tools, such as land-use plans, zoning ordinances and building regulations, and various kinds of permits and licenses as well. These tools provided legally-binding and, often, static rules for development and construction which corresponded to the certainties of the welfare state and the continuing economic progress and social stability of the post-war world.

However, already from the 1990s, the increasing globalisation of the economy, the growing complexity of social phenomena, the fluidity of location behaviours and the rapid acceleration of change, revealed the difficulties of conventional planning tools in responding to new needs and priorities in appropriate time frames. The problem has been aggravated after the crisis. So, too often, rigidity along with long planning processes make spatial plans very vulnerable and unable to cope with changing circumstances and shifts in the market and the society.

Under these constraints, many countries have proceeded during last years in various “planning reforms” in order to render their domestic planning legislation simpler, more dynamic and supple and to respond, thus, to increasing economic demands for flexibility and responsiveness in planning processes.

4. Shifts in planning governance and planning institutions: decentralization or re-centralization of planning powers?
Traditional planning was, in principle, organized at different levels. The latter reflected the spatial scale at which different plans operated (national, regional, local) and/or the government level at which they corresponded. In most countries, a, more or less, hierarchical structure between different levels of plans was established with the higher tier being usually binding on the tiers below it.

However, in recent years, new attitudes in planning governance have emerged showing the willingness to cut, or at least amplify, traditional vertical and hierarchical dependencies between different levels of planning and to give, thus, more room to local and/or regional planning initiatives and to corresponding public-private partnerships (decentralization).

On the other hand, during that period, several initiatives towards the centralization (or re-centralization) of planning powers took place in order to ensure central control over projects of national significance, large-scale infrastructure projects in particular.

Planning reforms underway in some countries reveal that strengthening central powers in certain planning areas may go along with pro-market “localism”, in a joint effort to encourage development and growth both from the top-down and the bottom-up. These developments show that the post-crisis institutional context of planning seems more complex and fuzzy than ever before.

5. Questions for Conference participants:
a) Which, do you consider, to be the main effects of the economic crisis, if any, on your country’s planning law and policy? Has your national planning law experienced, during last years, a minor or major reform as a result of the crisis or for other reasons and in which directions? Would you say that new attitudes to planning law have emerged as a result of these changes and, in a positive case, which?

b) Are there any recent efforts (2008 onwards) in your country for the simplification and speeding-up of plan-making (including the revision of existing plans) and in what direction? How does planning legislation in your country deal with projects that are not in conformity with existing land-use plans? Are there any provisions for, large-scale or minor-scale, deviations from existing land-use plans and under which conditions? Are there any provisions in your planning legislation for ‘projects plans’, that is, plans tailored to specific, public or private, land-development projects? After all, do you consider planning law in your country as flexible and responsive or not and why?

c) Are there any institutional changes in the relationships between different planning levels/authorities in your country during last years? Are these changes indicative of a more decentralized or more centralized system of planning-making? According to your planning legislation, do more levels of government make legally binding plans and, if so, are there any mechanisms to ensure co-ordination between them? How can national government influence the content of regional or local land-use plans? Which authority is responsible in your country to deliver planning permission for public and private projects of national, cross-regional or supra-local significance?

Georgia Giannakourou, Athens June 2013