David Cameron has a nasty little campaign going on to ‘get the planners of our backs’. As a chartered town planner, and a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, I have reason to be more than a little aggrieved about this.
Planning seems to get a lot of the bad press and blame when it comes to things that are wrong with the world, and particularly stuff that’s needed to be built. Throughout my career in planning, I’ve met countless planning professionals who shrug their shoulders at this and get on with their jobs, knowing that they are but one little piece of the jigsaw that creates our towns, cities, buildings and spaces. However, popular myth would have you know that the crap in society where stuff doesn’t work must be the fault of the planners; beautiful things that win awards are either magically created in a vacuum where planners don’t exist, or are solely the philanthropic gestures of the private sector or alchemy of handsome architects dressed in black with designer spectacles. The fact is that if there is incompetence in planning, then it is no worse than any incompetence in architecture, urban design, engineering or, heaven forbid, politics. The same is clearly true of competence.
Cameron’s nastiness is borne partly out of misunderstanding, partly out of ideology. For a start, when he talks about ‘planners’, he means the professionals working in local authorities making decisions on planning applications. This is but a small minority of town planners working in this country. The planners who do work in local authorities, making decisions on planning applications, work in a highly charged environment where the will of local politicians is often the determining factor in whether development goes ahead or not. Very often, poor decisions are not the whim of employed planners, but the whim of locally elected politicians. This has been demonstrated recently in Richmond, where locally elected councillors have voted to ignore Cameron’s most recent effort to relax the planning regulations, not the planners. Cameron also fails to recognise that it is local politicians who also approve local planning policy, albeit advised by the planners who are required to write the policy within guidelines set out by the Government. Planners are not free agents in all this, jumping on the backs of those seeking to develop.
Which brings me to the next significant point. Ideologically, Cameron believes in the free market to provide for people, believes in entrepreneurism, deregulation and individual expression and creativity. He essentially believes that people should be allowed to do what they want. And this is all very well, except that if this were taken to its logical conclusion we’d have uncontrolled anarchy and conflict as everyone sought to impose their will on everyone else. The planners that Cameron so despises sit in the centre of a network of groups, organisations and individuals with an interest in a development, whether on the side of seeing it go ahead, or on the side of resisting it. The planners role is to be impartial, look at the facts, the evidence and the interests involved, and make a decision based on that, and the guiding policy. The planners role is not to allow everything to go ahead, regardless of the consequences. The harm brought to affected interests in relaxing the planning system is at the heart of the argument of those opposed to relaxation.
Less significant issues here include the fact that ‘planners’ in its fullest sense work across the building professions, being an integral part of teams working with architects, house builders, charities, neighbourhoods, developers and landowners, often pushing for more housing, seeking to release green belts and compromise conservation areas, just as the local authority planners are seeking to protect them. And in mentioning this, one realises that many of the fantastic things about this country that we value – the protection of listed buildings, conservation areas, beautiful countryside, strong town centres, urban renaissance, the green belt and improving urban design are a result of a solid planning system and planners (and the planning system) placing a value on that on behalf of our society and community. And let’s not forget that the last time the Tories relaxed planning laws, the gate was opened to out of town retail parks and business parks, perhaps the most damaging development we’ve ever seen.
Cameron’s beef shouldn’t be with the planners. Cameron’s beef should be with the housing market. There is plenty of land and planning permissions available to supply housing. Part of the current problem is that it is not economic for house builders to build houses because of the raised expectation in both land and housing prices. This raised expectation means that those at the bottom of the market cannot afford housing and therefore don’t enter the housing market. People elsewhere in the market do not have the ability to move because the market is static, and prices are over inflated. Affordable housing isn’t being built in sufficient quantities to change this (and the market is poor at providing this anyway). Cameron’s plan to relax the planning rules to allow bigger extensions appears to allow more space for grown up children to continue living with their parents rather than stepping out into the housing market, and for those established homeowners to expand their homes and stay put rather than move. How this is going to help anyone is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, we’ll see unregulated extensions that are cheaply built and taking light and privacy from neighbours, undermining local character and identity and causing unnecessary conflict in neighbourhoods (at a time when the Coalition expects planning to be lead from the neighbourhood level).
Having grown up in the north, listening to the likes of Deacon Blue and The Smiths, having had my free milk stopped at primary school (I won’t forget, Mrs T.) and having always worked as a public sector planner driven by the desire to make society better overall, I was never going to be a Tory but, my word, this lot take the biscuit for crazy ideas and knee jerk, short term stupidity.