Don’t believe anyone today who confidently predicts what any particular political outcome will be. There are currently too many variables. What does this mean for planners, and planning lawyers, whose roles largely entail predicting and helping to influence the future? Practical outcomes flow from our advice. Our collective success rate is usually fair to middling at best (although it’s usually difficult to envisage the counter-factual so thankfully who can say!?) and the political and economic uncertainties are obviously currently heightened.
In the short-term, what will be the outcome of any particular decision that is before the Government or any Secretary of State? What will be the trajectory of previously announced changes (for example the forthcoming Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, the Regulations to give life to the Housing and Planning Act, changes to the NPPF) and those anticipated, for example the reform of CIL? What appetite will there be for call-ins or local plan interventions? All valuable information. Wouldn’t we love to be able to advise!
In the longer-term, will we see a Government with a changed policy agenda? Will the populist appetite for localism on a national scale mean greater emphasis over time on the rather different localism espoused by the Localism Act? What now for devolution? How soon will we see changes that water down environmental or competition law protections? Again, a big temptation to jump right in with answers.
Maybe we can. Hopefully in the short-term the changes for planning will be minimal – development activity has a way of going forward whatever the political climate. But that’s my emotional response, partly based on experience, partly based on the need to be positive – after all let’s not talk ourselves into a negative situation.
However, before we give any prediction or advice that is to be relied upon, a few principles:
– the more controversial the political decision the more unpredictable its outcome is (as minds will need to be engaged that are currently applied elsewhere) and the more likely it is to be postponed, but (to add to the uncertainty) always with the counter possibility that it may be announced quickly to be “got out of the way” in all the hubbub, if the real work has already been done (Heathrow anyone? The reality is that we are all guessing, but surely it would take a Cabinet meeting and can we see that on the agenda in coming weeks? My guess is no).
– the more longer-term the question, the more difficult it is to answer, because the uncertainties increase exponentially.
– don’t underestimate the random element in politics: for example, people (who will the decision maker actually turn out to be?); something that happens; something that goes viral and expresses a mood; interactions with economics and markets.
So how to advise and predict? I would suggest that some fundamental rules apply:
– gather all relevant current information and use it to arrive at, rather than corroborate, your conclusions.
– advise based on the facts and as to what constraints there are to political and legal procedures – believe in the rule of law and uphold it. Predictions as to court outcomes are likely to be more reliable (because there are narrower tramlines), although see also the next point.
– be careful not to oversell as to the certainty of anything (I’ve heard QCs advise there’s an 80% prospect of a particular court outcome, when even with a legally ‘certain’ position I would guess that the litigation risk of something completely unpredicted happening is always at least 20%) – the more experienced we are, the more compelling we can sound to others as well as to ourselves.
– don’t be afraid to postulate alternative outcomes and to sensitivity-test (“What if I’m wrong and x happens?”).
– ignore your personal wishes or fears and those of the person asking the question: sub-consciously we all want to reassure. There’s always a positive way of saying “no”.
– don’t assume that things will happen in the way that they usually do: the past is an uncertain predictor of the future and there are fewer reliable patterns “in the moment” than with the benefit of hindsight.
– don’t be a sheep/lemming – the consensus view isn’t necessarily the correct one.
– be clear: unclear advice is no advice; waffled advice is wasting someone’s time and (probably) hiding the fact that the answer is that…you don’t know the answer.
These thoughts were partly sparked by Dan Gardner’s brilliant and unwittingly topical 2011 book, Future Babble (see this Guardian review).
Simon Ricketts 26.6.16
Personal views, et cetera