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27/10/2016

The constant planner: A confidential briefing

Words:
Ilustration | Oivind Hovland

Chris Shepley laments a world without facts and wonders whether evidence-based planning will ever dare to show its face again

They met in secret. Elaborate security measures had been developed over the past few months, and a series of safe houses established across the country. As outsiders, of course, it was necessary for them to stay under the radar, and The Planner is fortunate to have been allowed to witness a gathering in a remote country cottage, which has since been demolished, somewhere in the South-West. 

An ever-changing system of passwords and codes has so far baffled MI5, and even on the dark web all references to the group are forbidden to frustrate GCHQ’s search for clues. Your reporter was blindfolded as he was driven along country lanes in Devon, or possibly Somerset, or Dorset, for several hours before arriving at the meeting. 

It was obvious that these people were scared. Once treated with respect, they now shrank in their chairs, diminished, withdrawn – outcasts without cause, pariahs without reason.

For they were experts. People who had knowledge. People who still saw purpose in facts.

People who understood things and who, at one time, had used their accumulated wisdom to advise the grandest in the land. Now, far from the hallowed halls of Marsham Street, they were grovelling for survival in rural squalor. 

Knowing that readers of The Planner are well used to dealing with confidential information, I was allowed to report discreetly on their discussion, but of course I must ask the reader not to pass on any of the details.

Professor [redacted], who masterminds the group, sought to rally the troops. In introduction, he or she noted that the new prime minister had, on one recent occasion, made use of a fact. This was the first such case since that Mr Gove had said the country had had enough of experts, and possibly the first since about 2013. From such acorns mighty oaks might grow.      

The main topic on the agenda was strategic planning, and Dr Incognito presented a paper about the Olympic Games, which had been held earlier in the year. If the media were to be believed, GB had done very well at these games, and had medalled furiously. Furthermore, this had been the direct result of a strategy that had been in place since 1996. It had been based on analysis and information, and applied with determination, consistency and a focus on outcomes. It had not been the subject of continuous alteration, or damaged by random initiatives, political manoeuvres and gimmicks. 

Dr Incognito posited that, nil desperandum and sine qua non, if such a strategic approach – maintained over a period of years – could work for athletics it might also work for things like housing, transport or energy. 

This was received with considerable enthusiasm. It was noted that the British had once been world leaders at strategic planning, and that it would probably be at least as easy to prepare a housing strategy as to win a gold medal at gymnastics - and surely no more difficult to decide on HS2 or Heathrow than to achieve world domination in cycling. 

A sliver of optimism crept into the room, but Professor [redacted] warned against the onset of euphoria. The world was still wedded to post-truth decision-making, the extermination of inconvenient evidence, and governance by hunch and prejudice. We must move forward carefully.

They left singly, watchful, vigilant, edgy, but not without hope. As your reporter replaced his blindfold for the long journey back to the real world, he wondered anew at the way government, society, and the media had moved so rapidly from thought to guesswork and from fact to supposition in decision-making. But if they could so readily do that, maybe they could equally readily switch back, so that experts could return safely to the public gaze.  

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

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