Alister Scott

Alister Scott

Dr Alister Scott, Reader in Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University

According to Ministers the new planning system is about Localism, Localism and Localism and occasionally they change the order of Localism.  There is much to commend about the ideas of localism and delegating authority to the lowest level for decision making. However they are now throwing the proverbial planning baby out with the bathwater and enough is enough. This government believes that some key planning functions can be given to local community groups. This ideal perhaps more than anything else illustrates the way the Minister fails to understand the role of planning and, more importantly, the status of planning as a worthy and valuable profession.   To train as a planner takes up to 5 years with RTPI accreditation and yet the government believes that many community groups can take over these functions voluntarily as the Big Society culture spreads across England in a tidal wave of local action.  This tsunami is in danger of being a damp squid with unforeseen problems resulting in continual  knee jerk policy by letter as evidenced by Mr Quartermain recent interventions.

I wonder how people would react if instead of planners we decided that lawyers, teachers and  doctors were equally replaceable by volunteers. Moreover one of the best kept secrets over the last few years is that planners have been doing, despite the limitations of a Labour government, some very good planning which captures  exactly what the government is  claiming to want. Planning is too important to be a  political football when one considers that it defines our quality of life and ultimately our happiness!  Mr Cameron take note.

There are fundamental problems with this whole philosophy which the Minister needs to be taken to task over.

  1. Planning is a profession requiring years of training and professional support. Planners are doing a key job under difficult circumstances.  I see that role as shaping peoples quality of life through working collaboratively with all stakeholders to secure good quality places and environments. This is too important to be a part time or voluntary occupation.
  2. Communities need support and boundaries for their ideas and visions. It is here that the well trained planner has a key role as a facilitator and enabler.  Working with stakeholders to design, define and implement projects in the right places is what good planners do. So let’s recognise it and acknowledge it is despite political interference whatever the colour as planners are professionals and like all professions we have bad apples too.
  3. In a recession and with people struggling to make ends meet there will be less people able to volunteer to deliver the Big Society. Consequently most ‘communities’ will be run by self imposed elites who have the time and might make decisions based on their own interests rather than all the groups that reside in such areas.
  4. The cutting of Planning Aid where professionally trained planners support community groups who cant afford to employ consultants clearly signals the perverse nature of the Big Society rhetoric.
  5. If community groups can prevent or allow development they will be liable to legal action in cases where developers appeal.  Who will volunteer knowing that they can be subject to developer challenges and legal costs.  Issues of national and European law apply here.
  6. Neighbourhood plans are  key element of the new planning system. However such plans by their very definition will require Strategic Environmental l Assessments under European and national legislation. . Given the ministers drive to get rid of planners who will carry these out and who will pay for them.

Planners are taught the importance of process in their work. The need to show thought and awareness of all the implications of intended  actions and to plan upon good evidence and not presumption or dogma is key. Perhaps Mr Pickles should take a leaf out of the planners training and attend my Policies and Plans module!

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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University