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Don’t let the sun go down on planning’s power for good – a valedictory note

Ovilid Sunset

In his final column for The Planner, the estimable Chris Shepley observes that change is in the air, and this is a good thing

Remarkably, there have been grumbles about this column. This on the grounds that it contains too much grumbling.

Now, I believe that one should employ one’s skill set to the max, and as a slightly older planner I have developed grumbling as a sophisticated pursuit over the years. My wife appreciates my consummate skills in this area, I think. But nonetheless, being criticised for being critical is a worry.

In fact only a small, even infinitesimal, proportion of commentators have complained thusly. And even he concedes that there has been much to be critical about over the past few years. When this column chunters about regional imbalance, PD extensions, the housing debacle, duties to cooperate, the sustained attack on launderettes, system changes that are about as useful as Boris Johnson, or the awful chasm of nothingness that strategic planning has become, he is hard put to disagree.

Nonetheless, I must address this allegation. I wish, therefore, to make it clear that I am entirely optimistic about the future of planning. I always have been and always will be. It’s what’s kept me going. This is, essentially, because I can see no way in which the world can manage without it. Everybody plans. Businesses have business plans; households plan their budgets; people plan holidays; the NHS plans healthcare; vicars plan sermons; thieves plan burglaries; Trump plans to play golf. There are no exceptions – or if there are, then things are liable to go horribly wrong (don’t mention Brexit; after all this is an optimistic column).

And of course we have magnificent achievements to our names, from green belts to new towns, the 800,000 homes currently, I’m told, in the pipeline, the regeneration schemes, the parks, the protection of the countryside, the conservation areas and listed buildings, and so endlessly on. Others take the credit for all this, of course, and blame us for things that go wrong like the loss of pubs or independent shops, but that’s just another invaluable function that we offer.  

“We’ve been through a period of aberration but change is in the air”

So you have to plan the way development takes place. How else do you prepare for climate change? How do you arrange for everybody to have a decent house, with decent facilities nearby and a reasonable transport system? How do developers know what to do next? There would be an outcry if anyone tried to get rid of it, and there’s quite a bit of unhappiness at its current weakness.

We’ve been through a period of aberration but change is in the air. Mrs May, for example, thinks that we should build council houses, and we all know that if she makes such a promise it will definitely happen. Ministers have mentioned the word ‘region’, which was banned for several years, and started to realise that we need strategic planning. There is lots of pressure to stop building homes the size of broom cupboards. And an emerging understanding – if only one of our planning ministers could remain in post long enough to grasp it – that people are happier in well-designed, convenient, sustainable and attractive places. Change is in the air.

So in some ways I wish I was starting out all over again. What a time to be a young planner! The world is your oyster. But I’m not sure I could go through all that again, so I’ll leave you to take over, and I wish you luck.

This is the last of these columns. This is not because of the grumble about grumbling mentioned earlier, which was in fact fictitious. It’s because it’s time to move on before the reader demands it. That, and the fact that recent government announcements have strayed well beyond parody. It’s been an honour and a pleasure, for me at least. And I think it is right to end on a positive note. Things are going to be fine. Probably.  

Bon voyage.   

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

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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