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16/03/2017

A Delphic disconnect between developers and people

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Chris Shepley discovers a disregard of local views while mooching at the local laundrette

Dave was paying a visit to the launderette. Amazing how many planners are called Dave.

From time to time, Mrs McTavish and the others took time off from their valuable work of bothering ministers, and engaged with local issues. Dave was their local planner, and would often drop by in the hope that Elsie would make him a cup of tea. He saw the place as a good source of local views. He settled opposite Mrs Braithwaite’s revolving smalls for a homely chat.

Mr Khan raised the issue of the big development opposite the church. The developer had had several local exhibitions, public meetings, charrettes, and seminars, as a result of which a scheme for 200 homes, 40 per cent affordable, with lots of tree planting, a small park, a community centre and all the trimmings had broadly satisfied all the over-seventies who took an interest in such matters.

"Amazing how many planners are called Dave"

Mr Khan, however, knew what was coming next. (As you do too).

Over a period of time, with various iterations, applications, appeals, arguments, and the pretty blatant disregard of local views, this transmogrified into a scheme of 500 homes, with a handful of affordables on a separate site behind the abattoir, a couple of trees, and a swing for the kids.

As Dave had often explained, this was a common scenario and the council these days had little chance of standing in the way. A barrage of dense information from a fleet of consultants had sought to demonstrate that the original scheme was no longer viable in view of the recession that happened nine years ago, the price of socks, and the need to maintain the CEO’s bonus at its previous level. 

No one at the council had time to read all this, and in any event it was designed to avoid the possibility that they might understand it. Mr Khan had found a number of holes in the argument, but an inspector, guided by government policy, came down on the side of the builder. 

They sipped their tea. Mrs McTavish wondered, as she emptied the dryer, what sort of a voice ordinary people in launderettes had these days. Dave skilfully turned the conversation to the new Local Plan Advisory Group. 

He produced the minutes of the recent meeting, which had been attended by Councillor Tansy Bergamot, Chair; Jolyon Titus-Quail, Chamber of Commerce; Wigbert Cholmondeley, house builders; Estonia Rice-Mugg, Save the Green Belt; Figgy Ffortescue-Ffergusson, Conservation Society; Aubyn Yak, Residents Forum; and Mrs Braithwaite, Launderette.

“An inspector, guided by government policy, came down on the side of the builder”

Mrs B was grateful to be in the group, but she told Dave that she’d found it tough. There had been what she understood planners called a ‘disconnect’. Other members of the group talked in a language she didn’t fully understand – a combination of impenetrable jargon and knowing middle-class banter. They were all concerned pretty much exclusively with the mathematics of how many houses should be built. Lots, said some; not many, said others. Sometimes they mentioned jobs, and there was a bit of a barney about parking. 

But Mrs Braithwaite had carried out a survey of launderette users. What did they want from the plan? She reported to the meeting that people wanted a lovely new park, a library, some children’s playgrounds, cheap houses, more trees, cheaper buses, local shops and none of those awful chains, and a new spin dryer.

Dave apologised for the puzzled and patronising response she had received. These (even cheap houses) were not issues at the front of the group’s minds. He resolved to raise, at the next RTPI regional meeting, the question of why the conversations that planners had, and the predictable effusions of the usual suspects in the business community or the conservation bodies, were so different from those of the patrons of the average launderette.  

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland

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