“Once upon a time I was falling in love….. but now I’m only falling apart” (James Steinman / Bonnie Tyler)

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Planning and the abyss…by Adam Sheppard

In the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) Journal this month (February 2019, Vol.88, No.2) there are two articles concerning planning education and the profession.  The first, by Gavin Parker and Emma Street, asks searching questions concerning planning competencies and the future implications for skills, professional bodies, planning education, training, and lifelong learning.  The second, by Hannah Hickman, Katie McClymont, and Adam Sheppard, considers the challenge of translating the motivations and aspirations of planning students into current practice realities today.  Both articles, alongside the outputs of other authors, practitioners, and academics in recent years, point to a wider narrative of challenge for planning today, and planning in the future. The current challenges facing an evolving profession and industry are far reaching and pose interesting questions; in the extreme, is planning staring into an abyss?

The city is a work of art…

A colleague recently emailed me during an exchange on this subject and simply said ‘planning is dead’. On a personal level it is interesting to reflect on how friends and colleagues, many of whom have devoted much of their life to positively and passionately furthering planning thought and the aims and ambitions of the profession, could hold such a view. I will also admit to feeling, at the very least, ‘frustration’ concerning the state of the industry and the lack of effective action to address ongoing challenges. It is easy to slip into the mire with only a few selected examples in relation to the system itself:

  • Localism, a noble venture with enormous potential, finds itself frequently under-resourced and creating a stark new reality of planning; how does one operate effectively in a local authority area with 50 or 100 Neighbourhood Plans?  And how will that picture look in 10 or 20 years’ time?
  • The use of Prior Approval, particularly in relation to residential conversions, creates a scenario where developments with significant issues such that they would otherwise struggle to achieve permission by virtue of everything from design quality to locational factors, are able to bypass due process in the interests of the ‘greater goal’ of housing numbers delivery.  I for one struggle greatly, not only with the high cost that is accepted here, but also with the worrying signals for the future of the regulatory construct.
  • The 5 year housing land supply requirement is easy to rationalise too, but the challenge of meeting it, and the stark reality for local authority areas without it, creates a further environment of challenge.

The list goes on.  And with it comes frustration, despair, and sadness for all of us who believe so strongly in a profession with such potential to be constructive, positive, creative, innovative, impactful, just, equitable, progressive, and inclusive.  How can planning address the current local, national, and global challenges in such a context? Particularly with the added dimension of ongoing austerity. It is easy to regress into process, into conflict, and indeed into despair and perhaps even apathy. The current discussions concerning the future of planning, including notably the TCPA Raynsford Review (https://www.tcpa.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=30864427-d8dc-4b0b-88ed-c6e0f08c0edd), are therefore critical. These are zeitgeist discussions of great importance. Now is the time to shout loudly, to challenge the status quo, to question, to push back. To quote the late Bull Pullman in the blockbuster ‘Independence Day’, presumably referencing Dylan Thomas, “We will not go quietly into the night”.  

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