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engagement’ rather than a chance to impose regulation and control through an impenetrable sheaf of sometimes wildly outdated very general policy vetos.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?