Planners: Your country needs you (but no one will admit it)

Gillian Darley

In the UK we push planners to the margins. In the Netherlands their expertise is valued by government. Which do you think is working best, asks Gillian Darley

Where are the architect-planners, the landscape-planners, the engineer-planners? Is there, for that matter, any town and country planning worth the name at all? Sometimes it must seem to those planners who still remain in the public sector that they have been left to hang, twisting in the wind, while the government (and wild cards such as city mayors) remove whatever remains of the structure from under their feet.

At the end of the last war, Lewis Silkin, Atlee’s minister of town & country planning, put out a desperate plea for those with qualifications in architecture, landscape, engineering or surveying to consider adding planning to their training. A country of pock-marked towns and cities, many bombarded over the previous five years or, at least, suffering from long years of attrition, needed men and women with the right training for the job. He estimated that fewer than 1,000 planners remained, while a minimum of 1,600, rising to 2,500, would be needed.

At a thoughtful conversation about the function and reality of the green belt held at the Cullinan Studio last week, and titled Loosen/Buckle: Can London’s Green Belt Work Harder for its City? the overall picture emerged of a system that is entirely unfit (and unwilling) to consider intelligent, let alone radical, measures to direct and control the pressures that are, like grandmother’s footsteps, creeping up on every side. Rural planning, said one speaker, is even more dysfunctional than urban planning.

The professionals who are left to speak up for the tattered system and a still uncertain “new” framework, need superhuman powers and confidence and, most important, the sort of perspective that only complementary professional disciplines can provide.

The respected and long-established department at Newcastle University, which includes several conversion courses, via masters’ degrees and postgraduate diplomas, as well as a more conventional undergraduate programme, offers promising options but what then faces graduates?

The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, signed off by Silkin’s equivalent, then minister (and since 2015 Secretary of State) Greg Clark at the unwieldy Department for Communities and Local Government depends on a half-cooked stew of local plans and neighbourhood plans, many of which have yet to see the light of day. So eager is the department to distance itself from the taint of central planning that the government website gives the following mission statement: “We work to move decision-making power from central government to local councils. This helps put communities in charge of planning, increases accountability and helps citizens see how their money is being spent.”  At least the bald, meaningless words reflect reality: a kind of driverless vehicle being road tested well before the road has been built, watched by feckless engineers.

Where they still are in post, local authority planners have been diminished, demoralised and all too easily left as the butt of disdain, under attacks from a range of adversaries, from packs of vociferous individuals to intransigent developers, the latter depending on planning consultants to deal with that side of things.

Yet if good minds and suitable agencies could be brought together, for example to consider a New Green Belt, say with Countryside Stewardship extended, as the president elect of the Landscape Institute Merrick Denton-Thompson suggests, then more might be said for localism and the delegation of powers.

Vision and professionalism in the hands of planners who can see the purpose of their brief appears to be working in the Netherlands, in the so-called Green Heart which was designated in 2003. So, why not some bold localism here in this part of Europe?


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