It’s the Planner’s JOB to Question the Status Quo and Look at the Big Picture

As a co-founder of the ‘250 New Towns Club’, I get involved in a lot of sparky discussions. A senior planner in a London borough emailed in with some common challenges, starting with a comment that planning ministers are from the world of business and will move onto other areas, so losing continuity and knowledge of planning at the highest level. My response was as follows.

“The background of the current batch of planning ministers is local government and policy think tanks. One of the problems is that ministers and MPs have not had sufficient life experience outside the world of parliamentary and local authority politics. This reflects the loss of meaning, purpose and direction in national and local politics.

The town and country planning act 1947, which was about the state appropriating the right to develop land and its associated betterment value, was one of a number of nationalisations,. It says something for the planning system that of all the denationalisations since the 1980s, only planning and the N H S have survived.

You say ‘as a whole, the Planning system is a good, robust and workable solution’

What is the problem that the planning system is a workable solution for, as suggested? The poor quality of development proposals and lack of neighbour consultation has been encouraged by reliance upon the mediation of planning officers and committees. By taking away the right of the freeholder to develop his or her land, the state has diminished the role of the landowner, treating him or her as incapable of bringing forward development that is positive and progressive. What did landowners do before the planning system? They treated other landowners and neighbours as equals in the world of development. Everyone else was excluded from consideration. Even now, if I build an extension to my house, I will consult my neighbours before I draw up proposals. However I am the exception, the planning system takes away the need for landowners to consult and collaborate with each other upon development of their land. Rather the consultation is mediated through planning officers and planning committees, and so the planning act entitled third parties to be involved in the development process. One of the complaints I hear from my planning colleagues is the fact that neighbours no longer seem to talk to each other, except through solicitors’ letters. The planning system has legalised what was previously an adult, informal relationship between landowners, or occupiers. This has changed the nature of the relationship, so what was stated directly and clearly is now couched in the language of the courts and, increasingly, the environmentalist.

It is the changed nature of the relationship between the state and landowners and between individual landowners that now requires the continuation of a process of legal mediation between interests that are seen as conflicting. This now forms the basis of the planning system in the UK and in many other parts of the world. The legal backbone to the system does make it robust. The loss of meaning purpose and direction, mentioned above, results in the state interfering more and more in the individual landowner’s development intentions and relations with neighbours and third parties. However, this increasing interference is of a technical and managerial nature, lacking, as it does, ideology and political determination to develop. This is why the good intentions of national politicians end up with unforeseen consequences and apparently chaotic results on the ground.

You say ‘problem is the people who administer it, and their reason for administering it’

We need definitely to plan and we need planners. If anything, there is a dearth of effective economic, social and physical planning. I am constantly amazed that, in my work in local authorities, even large ones like Croydon, I find that I am one of a very small number of officers or managers, who are thinking strategically in the long term, say more than five years. Every service, such as education, health, economic development, finance and social care have no one with a responsibility to plan further than three years. Even property professionals in local government and in the private sector, now think in the short term of one to 5 years. How can thousands of new homes and jobs be created, when national and local government employees are directed to think in the immediate future? It is as if, somehow, private industry and developers will create wealth, irrespective of how we plan.

I have yet to meet a town planner who has not got within them the kernel of desire for positive change and development. The problem of the planner is one of the mediator, caught between apparently mindless and greedy developers on the one side and extremely self interested householders on the other. No wonder that older development controllers become cynical and embittered, after years of demanding developers shouting at them and moaning householders complaining to them, day in day out. Also, not surprisingly many planners retreat and hide behind the skirts of the legal processes.

You say ‘get people to query what they’re doing, sit up and take notice and actually realise that as a Planner, it’s their JOB to question the status quo and look at the big picture’

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. This is the start of finding the solution to building 250 new towns, in whatever form they should come. What might be interesting is to make this the starting point of your thoughts and start to ask questions and paint what you see of the big picture. You might be surprised where this takes you, but it can only help develop your understanding, and perhaps, to challenge the 250 New Towns Club and others with even more searching questions.


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