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Planner bashing – It’s a game anyone can play!

October 11th, 2012

The planning profession is once again up in arms as the Prime Minister is accused of joining the ranks of senior politicians both in Westminster and in the devolved nations having a dig at planners. I say ‘the profession’, it appears to be mainly those professionals working in local authorities who are the most irked, which is hardly surprising since it is they towards whom most of the criticism has been levied.
The responses to Mr Cameron’s comments are predictable. “Planners only apply the policies that central government create” shouts one officer. “Give us the funds and we will give a better service” wails another. In many ways, both have a point.

In terms of policy, all we have had from central and devolved government (of whichever persuasion) has been changing policy. Worse, policy has developed almost schizophrenic tendencies. We are told that planners should both support new sustainable economic development that is inconsistent with the development plan and to resist development that is premature to an emerging plan. We are told that green belts are both sacrosanct and that they are fair game. We are reminded that affordable housing is essential, but given clear signals that it should be relaxed to allow development to go ahead. We are told that retail is an employment activity but that loss of employment land to such uses should be avoided. I guarantee that if you can find a statement of policy somewhere in the grey and largely meaningless dirge of national planning policy, you will certainly find another somewhere else (either in the same document or in one of the very many documents that the Government failed to rescind) that says the opposite.

Trimming of budgets is a fact of life in this climate, but if development is one of the ways to kick us out of recession, then shouldn´t an efficient planning system be something worth funding properly? I was told recently that every new house that is built generates the equivalent of a job for one person for a year. Investment in a new and motivated planning officer would perhaps be far more efficient and effective investment than these awful and pitiful grants and funds that Government is obsessed with that seem to cost more to administer than they actually deliver.

From my comments you would be forgiven for thinking that I am entirely on all fours with my local authority colleagues on this planner bashing issue. Let me say right now, I´m not. There are, in my view, far too many bureaucratic dinosaurs in planning departments who are more interested in process than delivery – luddites who seem not to realise that the world out there has changed and see development as inherently a bad thing.

There are still some grumpy old trolls hiding in the darkest recesses of local plans offices across the nation who truly believe that, one day, manufacturing will come back to Britain with a vengeance and that consequently they should hang onto that fifty acre B2 site they allocated thirty years ago, just in case. Such people should be put out to pasture. However, let´s not tar all local authority planners with the same brush. There are still some out there that want to make a positive difference. Perhaps if Government stopped fiddling with policy after each breath and paid for some fresh blood in planning departments, the system may just be allowed to work in the manner that it was intended.