Planning generates controversy, passion, money, winners and losers in equal measure. Given recent media comments it is timely to reflect on why and how we plan and who and what we plan for? Such planning fundamentals have got lost and confused in the murky political football of recent planning reforms and controversial planning applications which together fuel an unhealthy dualism between those that seek to develop and those who seek to protect. However, good development needs both.
It is salient to remember that the roots of planning lay with visionaries who saw the need for policy intervention to address the overcrowded insanitary conditions that typified much of the cities of Victorian Britain, linking high quality living environments with cohesive communities and thriving local economies. Here the virtuous circle between built form, community, health, environment and economy was recognized and championed. Planning was rooted in the principles of social and environmental justice.
Such thoughts to me show that effective planning is both an art and science, but one rooted in a bundle of regulatory and creative functions which sometimes create significant internal tensions. Hence, the sustained attacks by politicians, academics, business and the public who increasingly question planning's role and value. The humble planner has become the perfect scapegoat for all that is wrong; failing to secure growth and yet also allowing urban sprawl.
Good planning is about producing plans; enabling the building and shaping of high quality places and environments and improving quality of life. These goals are pursued through both regulatory (sticks) and incentive (carrots) frameworks. Thus, the planner becomes a conductor of a development 'orchestra' mediating between the different players to ensure that the music produced is both coherent and inspirational. There should be no place for 'manufactured' pop music here.
But this orchestral harmony is not happening in practice. Increasingly we see critics complain about a homogenous and 'placeless' society. We see planning policy based on selective cherry-picking of evidence rather than evidence based-policy. Principles of social and environmental justice are jettisoned in pursuit of economic growth, whilst localism tends to favour those articulate professionals who can steer the planning process to suit their interests rather than those who are in greatest need.
Eric Pickles recently claimed that there has been "no effective town and country planning over the last 30 years". I beg to disagree. Planners have been active at the chalk-face of place-making and shaping in spite of successive tides of political interventions that often destroy previous government policy reforms in favour of their own which is not helpful. The current growth at all costs is both short-term and damaging to good planning.
My work has been focused at the meeting place of town and country; the rural-urban fringe. Here we can observe the fracturing and disintegration of planning policy at first hand. In our cities and towns the emphasis has been on restraint, controlling the 'urban octopus' from destroying the rural 'idyll'. Whilst in our rural areas we have seen huge incentives given to our farmers and landowners to produce food and protect the environment. These different ideas have created different institutions that champion their own interests rather than the linkages that now unite town and countryside. The black and white approach, which sees town and countryside as opposites, fails to see the shades of grey within which new opportunity space exist for planning and planners.
The key question, therefore, is how to escape the thinking that constrains the options into these simple protect or develop mentalities. It is here that the purpose of planning needs to be re-discovered in a more positive vocabulary that is built around benefits, opportunitites and risk of particular landuse options. Moving away from the current focus on economic land values and economic assessments of impact, planning tools could usefully measure and value the increased benefits and services in environmental and community assets. For example, flood protection, water quality, carbon reduction, air quality, food, and landscape value, are currently poorly factored into decision-making yet are aboslutely crucial for society.
The fringe landscapes that characterise much of the West Midlands herald new opportunities for local economic development and green economy. For example green infrastructure (which encompasses 'blue' - water) connects town and countryside. The identification of a network within planning frameworks of authorities, incorporating community-led approaches and management, can help to identify multifunctional opportunities associated with housing and employment sites, wildlife corridors, flood alleviation, community food growing, public access and recreation and land management. Indeed, the value of green infrastructure in Birmingham has been estimated to be £12m annually. Here we see that virtuous circle again which enables the benefits of development to be based on evidence across social, environmental and economic domains.
But good plans and good planning takes time and demands new thinking. Too many planners remain rooted in the regulatory fix and the fetish for order. The planner needs to embrace both regulatory and creativity as one part of a wider jigsaw puzzle that helps identify the kinds of cities, town and countryside we need for our long term future. Lets give our professional planners the chance to play their part in realising this vision before it is too late.