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25/09/2015

Might is being pitted against right in this tug of war

Words:
Tug of war

Is planning destined to be a tug of war between practitioners and politicians? Chris Shepley wonders what it might be like

Chris ShepleyI sallied forth over the summer to the village green to watch a tug of war between “Build stuff at random” and “Build stuff in the right place”.

“At random” were the pre-tug favourites, armed with copious amounts of scattered brownfield land and a clutch of vacant industrial sites. They relied on power to get their own way. “Right Place” took a more cerebral approach, and the tussle between brawn and brain looked unmissable.

The umpire crouched low, knees akimbo. A tense crowd watched, hushed in the burning sun. The village band played Abide With Me, then fell silent as he opened the bout with a cry of “tug away!”

“At random”, with Sir Eric Pickles at anchor, took an early lead. Using the technicalities of the Use Classes Order to their advantage, they soon had offices switching to housing willy-nilly. An old hospital was demolished (much to the chagrin of the patients) and Greg

Clark, tugging merrily at silly mid-off, claimed that over 100 houses had been provided, though the umpire judged that owing to double counting there had in fact been only 12 – tiny – dwellings, most of them built the previous week on contaminated land.

"Logic has taken wing and flown to the top of the church spire, where it is being attacked by a pigeon"

“Right Place” saw a chance, and started to make progress. Pointing out that many of the new houses were miles from the nearest school, pub or shop, with an incinerator next door but no buses, they impressed by arguing for deliberately putting things near other relevant things, rather than relying on happenstance. They pointed out the locational, financial and practical problems attendant upon a lot of brownfield land. Calling on years of experience, they took the lead with a sharp reference to garden cities.

But then they overplayed their hand by bringing climate change into play. Sensible planning, they argued breathlessly, could reduce the need to travel and help us achieve our carbon reduction targets. This, as they ought to have predicted, upset George Osborne, who had been tugging somewhat ineffectually in the Stroke position. Tossing aside the rules about carbon-neutral homes, and switching all his cash from wind to fracking, he threw in a few populist irrelevancies about the green belt, muttered incomprehensibly about zoning, and took his team firmly and deliberately backwards. The crowd, unsure of what was happening, muttered uneasily.

“Right Place” found such moves hard to counter. Was planning reduced to this? Random changes of use, avoidance of land situated near significant voters, the abandonment of affordability, and a few dodgy statistics?

The umpire was poised to attest a “profitable pull”. But wait. The RTPI president, tugging frantically at scrum-half, made an impassioned speech. “Logic has taken wing and flown to the top of the church spire, where it is being attacked by a pigeon,” she said.

“Judgement is dancing drunkenly around the maypole, tangled in ribbons and sweat. Reasoning ricochets round the bouncy castle like a helpless kitten in a washing machine.” She went on to make a passionate plea for community, for quality of life, for green space, for comfort and convenience, for nature and nurture, for happiness and gaiety, for life. These were not to be found on some densely developed desert of disused industrial land, or in a crumbling 60s office block converted to apartments, or a scrap of leftover land beside a carpet warehouse. Don’t we care about how people live? We can, and should, and must do better.

The “At random” team was reeling. The crowd cheered as the advantage shifted and a shocked Sir Eric let the rope slip from his hands and vanished (quite a feat). But Osborne and Clark tugged on frantically and, as I went for tea in the TCPA tent, the teams were level pegging. To be continued, indefinitely.

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

ILLUSTRATION | OIVIND HOVLAND

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