We all know the standard clichés about planning namely that ‘it is an art not a science’ and ‘it is essentially a political process’ and so on. For us planners, benefitting from a training which is part technical, part social science, part development economics and part environmental science it’s often a precarious path to tread between different agencies and opinions. The golden rule is, usually, to stay out of the politics – certainly a rule which I have followed throughout a career in local government and consultancy.
This blog post, for the first time, dips a toe (or perhaps just a toe nail) in the political pool.
At heart, planning is a social science – a public service profession. It took off after the Second World War in response to the economic and housing challenges faced by a nation rebuilding many of its major cities. Naturally, it perhaps attracted more left-of-centre students than, say, the law or economics courses. As an idealistic north easterner I certainly spent too much university time trying to protect the mining industry from Mrs Thatcher’s cuts. A focus on redistributing opportunities from rich to poor was always close to the surface.
Part of our redistributive zeal (and even more so the generation before us) was the desire to house the nation in good quality homes. Perhaps the Labour party adverts below summed up our mission. A key element of this redistributive agenda was to spread the availability of good modern homes and to stop good housing remaining a preserve of a middle-class, middle-aged generation. We wanted to see every family in a warm, safe home with a garden.
OK – some of our urban regeneration ideas (and wacky new town proposals) were a bit naive but our endless field trips to Runcorn, Holland, Edinburgh, Cramlington, Welwyn etc, put the housing fire in our bellies.
Fast forward to today and given the way planning is presented, it sometimes seems as if we planners have been turned around 180 degrees. With the demise of Council housebuilding and the poor design of much new private housing There is a sense some of us planners see the provision of new homes as actually harmful. The unwelcome product of a largely right of centre exploitative (rather than redistributive) sector. I sometimes question whether the instinctive reaction to new homes proposals is to be sceptical and questioning rather than supportive.
That said, most of the planners I meet are plugged into the need to address the housing crisis. However the behaviour of some housebuilders, the rise of localism and the increasing concerns about environmental protection and urban sprawl have undoubtedly taken the gloss off the prospect of more housing. Especially in the minds of the politicians. To me there are perhaps 3 key responses for us planners going into 2013.
Firstly, to keep our eyes on the prize – a significant increase in new homes is necessary to address a clear crisis of affordability, homelessness and inter-generational unfairness.
Secondly, to recognise our role as balancers and mediators. Planning is complicated and the need to understand, accept and consider both anti-housing and pro-housing views is crucial. As always, good evidence will be the key in making the tough strategic and site specific decisions.
Thirdly, to increase our educational role on the need for more housing. Whilst everyone seems to accept (in ‘academic’ or ‘national’ terms) the need for more new homes there is often a huge disconnect between that high level position and the approach to decisions at a site specific level.
The need to engage positively with both politicians and the new wave of ‘neighbourhood planners’ will be crucial. As always aiming at consensus and co-operation will always be more productive than sniping.