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Don’t get mugged off – for planning professionals the only way is ethics

Planning Illustration CREDIT Olivind Hovland

Planners are under greater pressure than ever to make recommendations that are convenient to others, argues Chris Shepley. But professional integrity is everything: ethics matter

Entirely fictitious conversation no 1:

“Are you enjoying being Chief Planner, young man?” asked Councillor Warbler, kindly. He knew that the pay was poor, but he also knew that paying off the mortgage was imperative. (Younger readers in the London area should ask their parents what a mortgage is). Dave replied from behind a tottering pile of applications that, yes indeed, he was loving every moment and could barely wait to get to the office every morning at five o’clock.

“Good,” said the councillor. “But I see you have in mind recommending approval to this application for housing which is in a marginal ward, not that that’s relevant at all of course, and which no fewer than 400 people have objected to. I was wondering if, since you like the job so much, you might see your way to having another look at it?”

Dave said he’d thought hard about it but as the land was allocated in the local plan, there was quite a bit of affordable housing, a new primary school, and a world- class design by a renowned architect, he found it tricky to find reasons to suggest turning it down. He mentioned the RTPI Code of Conduct.

Warbler bristled. “That’s an old-fashioned view,” he said. “Experts are out of date. You’re behaving like some civil servant telling a minister there are some problems attendant upon Brexit. Enemies of the people. I’d think long and hard, laddie, if I were you...”

Entirely fictitious conversation no 2:

“Is your firm enjoying working for me, my dear?” asked Charlie Wagtail, property developer extraordinaire (his description). He knew his lucrative work helped keep her small firm afloat. Carol replied from behind a small pile of invoices that, yes, indeed she was.

“Good. Only I gather that you don’t think this bit of land is suitable for housing. It cost me a lot of money, not that that’s relevant, but I wonder whether, since you like the job so much, you might have another look at it?”

Carol said she’d thought hard about it but as it was in the green belt and nowhere near a road or anything else, this was tricky. She mentioned the RTPI Code of Conduct.

Wagtail bristled (I think you can work out the next bit...).

"Planning is not simple and inconsequential; it’s not Love Island. Integrity and professionalism are complex"

Somewhat less fictional conclusions:

These are hardly new issues.  But I think these dilemmas have worsened, especially in the public sector. 

I know from my own experience that giving professional advice to ministers that does not accord with their views is hard (I’ve tried it). In local government the pressure on planners to give the advice that members want, rather than to stick to their professional views, has increased. As a result several influential respondents to the Raynsford consultation argue that planning should be removed from democratic control entirely.

This is not a conclusion I would support, obviously. But a Met Office Amber warning has been issued, so watch out for high pressure, especially over the South East, and spits and spots of dodgy decisions that might deepen as time goes by, with the likelihood of thunder if the temperature continues to rise.

As a reminder (superfluous, I’m sure), planners should “exercise fearlessly and impartially their independent professional judgement” and “not make or subscribe to any statements or reports which are contrary to their own bona fide professional opinions”. These have always been basic requirements and I never had difficulty in complying with them; but councillors like Warbler are less tolerant now.

Planning is not simple and inconsequential; it’s not Love Island. Integrity and professionalism are complex, and those who are not getting their own way find it convenient to undermine them. Even judges who apply the law rigorously are trolled in the papers and online. But the only way is ethics.

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


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