Twelve principles for local authority planning

Graham King sets out a personal manifesto to guide our beleaguered bureaucrats across Wales

For 30 years as a local authority planner I thought as a local authority planner, wrote as a local authority planner, and behaved as a local authority planner. In 1991 I went private and frankly it was an eye-opener to learn of the frustrations at the system within the private sector.

Working in Europe and elsewhere, including teaching in Hong Kong, also helped to change my perspective. The result is the personal manifesto below – a set of 12 principles challenging widely held attitudes in the public sector, which I now present for debate, spiced up with some additional comment. The Government is encouraging a ‘new culture’ in planning – This in my submission is what it should entail.

1. Consider your work as ‘creative engagement’ rather than a chance to impose regulation and control through an impenetrable sheaf of sometimes wildly outdated very general policy vetos.

There seems to be a form of fundamentalism at work treating policy documents as sacred texts, not as guidance, but as tablets of stone. It always seems easier to say “no” rather than to explore possibilities in a fast changing world.

2. Go for robust pre-application discussions – remembering the applicant may have given blood sweat and tears to produce the masterpiece you are too quick to condemn. 

Imagine sitting down in one of those airtight municipal cubicles and hearing the officer say “Wow! What a great idea – I think we can do something with this!” Probably mission impossible as the officer bears the full weight of the whole team hierarchy above him/her and has to confer and consult both upwards and sideways. There used to be called “a presumption in favour”.  If this is ideologically unacceptable, then why not try a smile.   

3. Ensure that the context studies/character appraisals are actually read and passed around as the application moves through the office, and always see the site.

The point of this practical tip is to remind that in spite of all of today’s sophisticated information technologies, planners do need to read, see, absorb the detail and critically appraise schemes for themselves. This still involves personal memory and imagination.

4. Resist the temptation to refuse an application when a short phone call may resolve differences: put service before those febrile statistics of performance.

OK, so you may have 30 applications in your in-tray, 30 pending, and 30 ready to action. Resources are short, but do try to keep that dialogue going to get a positive result.

5. Remember every site is unique in some way: so brush up your sense of place and bring a fresh eye to bear on each and every proposal. Avoid becoming one of Geddes’ “routinists”.

Geddes (known as the father of town planning) saw the danger of planning becoming merely a mechanical process with a tick box mentality. He quotes Aristotle as a warning, for whom the “general” was the lazily broad, while the “universal” arose from intense concentration on the particular: the “fresh eye” of Geddes.

6. Don’t be overawed by blanket policies designed to sustain a rural arcadia – use your imagination to foster sustainable solutions with social and economic dimensions.

So much today is talked and written about involving communities that never pierces the development control carapace where great schemes can still be condemned on minor design infringements from the rule book. Note the sea change espoused in the new circular on Gypsy and Traveller Sites (ODPM 1/2006) which emphasises that social and cultural needs may override long held environmental objections to countryside sites.  Also note the new thinking on urban fringe management and acceptable uses to maintain green belts.

7. Savour the fact that you are the ones in closest touch with reality: challenge the policy zealots when they come waving their mighty abstractions, sackfulls of principles, and strategic tomes on this and that.

No problem with principles as such, but how do you handle policy dissonance? Surprisingly Cardinal Newman, and him a 19th century divine, posed the following intensely practical question: an ethical system may supply laws, general rules, guiding principles, a number of examples, landmarks, limitations, cautions, distinctions: but who is to apply them to a particular case? His answer was almost existential: the living intellect, the alert intelligence, a trained and experienced capacity that sums up a situation and knows what to do – or who to ask.

8. Be flexible in your responses as we move through the new century into a world of cross-cutting initiatives that probably challenge the current approach.

As the UDP (or LDF) enters its final years of preparation, make sure that it’s responsive to emerging social and economic trends as made apparent by new pressures through development control. Accept you’re in a dynamic feedback situation most of the time. Bring in the emerging plan, let the old policies decay.

9. Really be truly observant as you weigh up the pro’s and con’s of a case: allow your plan-led instincts to absorb a place-led response; use your discretion – that’s your essential humanity.

Geddes said we need both town thinking and town feeling. Too much of planning today is conceptual and intellectual, narrowly rational. But feelings are rational indicators too; so take care to use all the senses, absorb the scene, and then weigh up the pro’s and con’s. Leave room for compassion in exceptional cases. Remember that guidelines are just that – guides to assist decision making.

10. Throw your reliance on precedent to the winds of chance: inspectors sometimes get it wrong; and even the Inspectorate encourages the submission of revised applications for fresh consideration. Be open-minded, site by site.

Toynbee in his magisterial “Study of History” describes how in the vast bureaucracies of declining cultures “in any official action which a civil servant had to take, his decision was apt to be determined less by the actual merits of the case in point than by a calculation of the precedents which this or that course of action might or might not create. 

11. How would plans and planning ever move forward in this dynamic world if we rely on “consistency” above all else? It can be a bad habit that leads to mediocrity – consistency must be set in context.

To question consistency per se is to make some planners blanch. After all, it’s written into the legislation and guidance, eg the need to be consistent with sustainability principles (plenty of scope for discretion there). If consistency means fairness, well fair enough; equally if in relation to up to date and relevant policies. Otherwise it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Planning is frequently the arena for the expression and resolution of conflicting interests. 

12. Watch your language: tone down the terminology, be user friendly, even when refusing – can a small infill cottage in a remote hamlet possibly lead to the “coalescence of settlements” and offend 12 other policies in the process?

Talk of alien structures (actually some attractive decking), exacerbation (traffic congestion), incongruous features (an attractive balconette in an inner city area overlooking the public realm), or unsympathetic fenestration (windows) are unhelpful. Keep it simple.

Surprisingly, I have high regard for hard-pressed development control managers. At their best they’re great, creatively guiding and shaping built form and other land use. At their worst they bring amazing energies to bear on stopping things. This attitude seems to have arisen through a combination of factors, giving rise to immense public frustration with the system as it stands. A new culture is emerging, but surely not the one the Government intended. Its hewn from staff shortages, an increasingly cumbersome and bureaucratic system, the insidious advance of risk aversion and threat of compensation, and the government imposition of targets, riding on the back of a profession trained in terms of a mechanical vision of top down policy enforcement. Thus the phrase “delivering planning”.

I have been deliberately provocative in order to provoke. Some consultants – often representing developers but not always – have been enormously supportive of what I say, but the vast bulk of local authority planners have studiously ignored me. May be wisely, but what do others think?

Graham King was a County Planning Officer for 18 years. From 1991 he has run his own planning consultancy from Swansea. Between 1992 -2004 he taught a course on UK Planning at the University of Hong Kong. From 1998 until 2001 he worked on EU projects with Hyder Consulting.

5 thoughts on “Twelve principles for local authority planning

  1. All good points, but is it not strange that our planning system is staffed almost entirely by people with no design education. So much of our public realm is let down not by bad planning but by poor execution – a failure to insist on better design.

  2. Graham – your comments chime with a lot of feedback I get from business and in respect to how sustainable development is interpreted – particularly the importance of early engagement.

    The Planning Bill will be important but the culture change you highlight is critical.

  3. I seem to remember there is another principle I sometimes think planners have forgotten – that there is a presumption in favour of development unless there are over-riding reasons to refuse.

  4. Few members of planning committees have any engineering or technical knowledge – or design experience. This probably isn’t that important for the majority of small scale applications, but with large scale developments this leaves them at the mercy of the applicants and the consultants they employ. If my experience is anything to go by the latter are fully aware of this situation so don’t take as much care over their applications as they should, the presumption being that no one on the planning committee will understand anyway. They assume it will be passed through on the nod.

    In the more rural parts of Wales much of the best land has already been used for building and there are often very sound engineering, environmental (flooding) and ecological reasons why nothing has been built in certain areas.

    And then there is the planning criteria. When you think of the situation with regard to wind farms where the latest report suggests that they could be net CO2 emitters because of peat degradation, and that which reported that their life span was nearer 10 to 15 years not 25, and the fact that Germany is having to build so many coal-fired stations to provide backup, and that the output from the large scale wind farms are very overstated due to the saturation effect the turbines themselves… But consideration as to whether wind farms actually work is not part their remit.

  5. Most development is only small to medium scale but cumulatively it can lead to great change over time. Some people have called this ‘death by a thousand small cuts’ – referring to the seeming inability to reconcile modern development with a setting rich in natural and cultural heritage. Others might see it as just part of evolution and an inevitable consequence of the rapid changes in technology and lifestyle choices from what we endured in the ‘old days’.

    Certainly in Wales – and beyond – in almost every town you will find a catalogue of how to ignore local character and distinctiveness. Where there has been little development the sense of arrival is likely to be dominated by the grim reality of a pebbledash heaven combined with the uncompromising application of standards-based car-dominated street design and, unsurprisingly, the general characteristics of gloom and decline. Where development has taken place it is probable that the identikit layout and building styles will say more about the particular volume builder or supermarket than it does about the long term potential of the local environment or community.

    When developments are large enough to have a master plan, we start to see a difference in vision between the volume builders and the Planners. The former love potato printing whereas the latter like everyone lined up in nice neat rows of high density tenements. What they both love is the colour green and ensure their plans have a lot of this. But when a scale rule is placed next to that apparently thick swathe of new tree planting, we often see that it is less than the width of one mature tree, so an urban forest heritage of a Victorian scale would never arise today. It’s as if the developer’s vision is to catch up with a car-based suburban USA – except without the spacious houses or wooded garden arcadia. And it’s as if the Planner’s vision is for us all to become good urban Europeans – but without the extensive interconnecting woodlands, cycleway systems and high quality public services to make that ideal work.

    To me there’s a common problem – lip service to green – the words are fine but the plans and execution on the ground don’t match.

    There appears to be a potentially exciting solution – Green Infrastructure – but to make it work there has to be a considerably more creative effort in Planning and design. We can use our natural and cultural heritage as a starting point but that alone is insufficient to suit our new needs. We essentially need a creative siting and design process to work with and beyond this heritage. That is the real evolution. I’ll mention that word again: creativity. Walt Disney and Sir Clough Williams-Ellis knew about this. Wales needs creative designers to make places, for their absence is being filled by a combination of corporate or standards-based expediency. And in making Wales so bland we are jeopardising our prospects for inward investment – especially tourism – in an increasingly international market that has increasingly higher expectations. We must adapt or die by remedying our design and creativity deficit in all aspects of life but especially in Planning and development.

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