Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Town planning does more harm than good - which is why it's not cool

I was expecting some sort of paean to the town planners art replete with talk of garden cities and quotations from Peter Hall but this article by Tom Campbell in the Guardian surprised me with the manner in which it deconstructed the problems with town planning - and with the planner:

“Planners have become simultaneously under-respected and over-professionalised. Their training and practice too often leaves them able to communicate effectively only with other planners and professionals, working in an abstract language that alienates them from people. People are occasionally allowed into the professional planner’s world, but in highly mediated terms dictated by the profession.”

Now to be fair to the town planner this description could apply to a host of other (sometimes derided) professions - law, accountancy, health service management to name just three - but it remains the case that we don't seem to know what the role of planning is in helping create great cities. The article goes on to argue (without any supporting evidence) that planning isn't a barrier to growth and even that planning can be "positive and bold", whatever that actually might mean.

The concluding argument though is this:

If cities such as London are going to thrive from globalisation, channelling funds into affordable housing, public infrastructure and civic spaces, it is planners who must go into battle on our behalf – democratically empowered; confident in their ability to negotiate firmly with private capital.

Which rather places planners as the plucky little chaps fighting against The Man on behalf of all the little people and, in doing so, creating great places. The problem is that London, unquestionably a great city, owes none of that greatness to the planning profession. Indeed, it wouldn't be hard to argue that planning - far from promoting great places - actively stifles their development. But all this merely reflects the nature of town planning as a bureaucratic function - for all that planners talk about public engagement and involvement, they still produce a rule book for fellow planners (and for the crust of parasitic lawyers that cling to these bureaucracies like barnacles).

Most planners start their careers by doing a thing called 'development control' (sometimes in a new and, I suppose, ever-so-trendy innovation this is called 'development management'). Put simply development control is the application of that rule book and is filled with phrases like 'Policy H10.0 of the rUDP states" and "the NPPF supersedes earlier guidance meaning that PPS13 not longer applies in this instance". The activity is designed - or so it seems - to numb the brains of even the most assiduous and thoughtful local resident.

Planners start their careers with this dull listing of policies and writing of reports explaining why Mr & Mrs Jones can (or cannot) build a little bungalow on the land next to their daughter's house, why Ali Khan isn't able to sell hot food from his shop unit or why local residents will (or won't) have to put up with lorries trundling along their narrow streets. This bureaucratic process seeps into the souls of these planners and they lose sight of the reason they set out on the career - the shiny pictures in the RTPI brochure and the flash urban design images on the University Planning Department's website are all erased by processing loft conversions, applications for takeaways and variations to Condition 23 of a planning permission.

So when planners get to do policy they approach it with their souls stained by years of routine, their minds filled with acronyms, legal cases and policy reference numbers. The planner assumes their purpose is given - how could we operate without the comforting and comprehensive tome setting out local polices. So we change its names from time to time - structure plans become unitary development plans which morph into the slightly disturbing set of letters, rUDP before emerging as the rather more prosaic Local Plan. But these are all essentially the same document  - each one starts out with a glimpse of the geographer as a picture of the place being planned is painted. Geology is mentioned, a little bit of history is added plus a description worthy of Stamps Commercial Geography. All this is but a false dawn as the document then plummets into the micromanagement of everywhere and everything - nothing can be left without a policy setting out how it should be done plus rules on which those parasitic lawyers can grow.

The problem is that this micromanagement has destroyed the purpose of planning - the sweeping thoughts of Peter Hall and others about helping design places that work for everyone. Planning is never seen as either bold or positive let alone creative or innovative. Yet that is what planners wish for but are denied by the pressure to use the system as a means of control rather than as a way to empower. Look at the direction for planning - rather than being free to help create great places the planning system has been filled with controls, bans, blocks and 'you can't do that there'. It is less the triumph of the NIMBY and more a deadening system where the default position - a position wanted by too many of my fellow politicians - is 'no, we don't want that there'. We're told that a presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' is somehow a bad thing and watch as planners (supported by local councillors) invent new ways to prevent that sustainable development taking place.

Campbell is right that planning must be the servant of the people - and it isn't right now. But he is wrong to place planning in opposition to capitalism. Instead planning should seek to help that capitalism with its innovation, initiative, enterprise and excitement go in the right direction. The problem with planning is that planners have absorbed an orthodoxy, turned it into a toolkit and used it to ruin too many of our fine places. The golden age of town planning that Campbell alludes to was, in truth, the era of slum clearance, of Wardley and Poulson. That golden age was anything but golden, it was rather a bit of sparkling gold spray on a corrupting and destructive scheme to remodel (many would say ruin) places like Birmingham, Bradford and Newcastle.

I know two things - that we don't want that golden age of town planning back and that Jane Jacobs, as ever, was right when she said:

“Planners, architects of city design, and those they have led along with them in their beliefs are not consciously disdainful of the importance of knowing how things work. On the contrary, they have gone to great pains to learn what saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people and business in them. They take this with such devotion that when contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside.” 

Planning is necessary but it more often prevents than creates great places.


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