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Nursery crimes: How Mr Pickles tore up the magical planning book


Storyteller Chris Shepley narrates a salutary tale about a man called Pickles.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time there was a large jolly man who lived in a Cabinet in London. His name was Pickles! People often laughed at his adventures, though they weren’t always meant to. They were sad when he went away, and nobody knows where he is now. But one of the things he was given to play with was town planning.

Pickles did not like the people who had lived in the Cabinet before him. So he broke a lot of their toys.

A man called John had invented something called regional strategies, which were lots of fun, but Pickles smashed them to pieces (it took him quite a long time). Nowadays, archaeologists in Manchester are trying to rebuild them, but some of the pieces are missing.

"One little girl said that she thought the old pages were very good because everybody understood them"

While he was breaking these strategies, poor Pickles also damaged a lot of other things, unintentionally. To this day, local plans don’t really work because the regional plans had made it easier to write them.

One day, Pickles asked what planning was all about. Somebody told him there were 700 pages describing how it worked, which had been carefully put together by previous Cabinet dwellers over the last 20 years. Pickles had a tantrum. That was too many pages for him to read, wasn’t it, boys and girls? And he thought they got in the way of deciding things.

Pickles had some servants who were very clever. He told them to cut down those 700 pages to no more than 50! And they worked very hard, night and day, weaving and sewing, sewing and weaving, until the job was done.

But people outside the Cabinet were not happy. One little girl said that she thought the old pages were very good because everybody understood them and they didn’t ever change very much. Now nobody would understand it! What a silly little girl, thought Pickles.

A little boy liked the old pages about minerals. That’s things like gravel and coal. He said he’d dealt with 25,000 planning applications and in 24,999 of them the pages on minerals had never got in the way, or even been brought out of the cupboard. But in the other one, they had been oh so helpful!

But Pickles ignored all that and the 50 pages were christened the National Planning Policy Framework and the 700 pages were banished from the land.

And he was lucky. Because although the little girl was right and nobody really understood it, some people called judges helped out and explained what it all meant.  Even so, he had to get his servants to write a lot more pages so that everything was clear. Most of this was put on a ‘website’ called the NPPG, which meant nobody could count how many pages there were, which was very clever. The little boy was pleased because minerals were there as well as a million other things. But Pickles had a lot of fun because he could change what was in the NPPG whenever he wanted to, and everybody was confused!

Eventually, boys and girls, Pickles was told to leave the Cabinet and the man who lived there afterwards decided to rewrite the NPPF all over again! He too thought that it should be 50 pages long. But after it was produced, it was said that there were no less than 13 areas where there was going to be even more guidance.

Isn’t that a sad story, boys and girls? Now there are a lot more than 700 pages, and they don’t stay still but change all the time, and there are more pages being written by the servants all the time. And all the children who have to use it are confused. I’m sure you are too. But Pickles is living somewhere else, and he probably thinks he was right all along!

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


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