Getting planners off our backs

By Alastair Donald | 22 September 

‘This Government means business’ announced David Cameron recently, and that starts with ‘getting planners off our backs’. But as highlighted by recent initiatives which attempt to use design to make us fitter and healthier, planners are meddling more than ever in our personal affairs and lifestyle choices. 

There are many aspects of the coalition government’s recent statement on Housing and Growth that are problematic. Firstly, it beggars belief that yet another programme of bit part initiatives – a few affordable homes here, some loan guarantees there, a little help for the private rented sector elsewhere – will kickstart economic growth. The most talked about aspect of the growth statement has been the proposed planning ‘holiday’. This will mean – if it passes through consultation unscathed – that in ‘non protected’ areas, for a period of 3 years, householders will be able to build conservatories a few metres out into their gardens – without first having to seek permission. Rather comically posed by officials as ‘homeowner’s rights’, the measures have rightly been ridiculed as akin to a ‘B & Q New Deal’

Secondly, the growth statement offers further confirmation that development is now something we undertake only in response to when the economy grinds to a halt and a desperate scramble ensues to find a way of injecting some impetus. In recent years, other than the ever-present drone of becoming more sustainable, there has been no political or social vision to articulate what it is that city builders should be hoping to achieve. Consequently, housebuilding is discussed almost entirely in terms of bolstering the market – rather than how we could ambitiously plan the new homes, neighbourhoods or even cities that could transform lives by offering new, cheaper, high quality places to live.

Thirdly, take the claim that the new statement on housing will continue the job started (allegedly) by the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) of creating a more growth oriented planning regime. In fact this is to fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics inherent in the NPPF where the introduction of a presumption in favour of sustainable development will effectively tie up any plans for new development in reams of ‘green tape’. It’s notable that a presumption in favour of sustainable development is something that even New Labour felt unable to introduce. In 2004 when architect Richard Rogers argued in the House of Lords for ‘sustainable development’ to be defined and included within the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, then planning minister Lord Rooker refused, pointing out that to do so would only ‘stifle developments around the country ’.

Finally, the sound bite that made the headlines – the coalition intends ‘getting planners off our backs’. No doubt – whether it aids growth or not – it would make a lot of sense to free up what can be built. But regardless of any planning ‘holiday’ on small extensions, the more important boarder trajectory of planning continues to be towards ever greater regulation. Under the guise of the much vaunted ‘urban renaissance’, the areas the planning system seeks to control have been continually expanded beyond a straight forward concern with use classes or aesthetics into shaping individual behaviour, lifestyles and personal choices. It’s worth looking at this in more detail.

Published in 1999 by the Urban Task Force, ‘Towards and Urban Renaissance’ drew inspiration from the urban model of continental Europe, in particular the compact, ordered space of the then newly revitalised Barcelona, with its well-designed squares, tree lined boulevards and urban parks. However, the urban renaissance was always about much more than a particular urban form. In the urbanity and public spaces of European cities with their well mannered street life and easy going café culture, the Richard Rogers led Task Force saw a morally superior way of living. As noted by Edinburgh academic Richard Williams, at a time when anxious politicians, policymakers and planners fretted over social fragmentation, Rogers and his colleagues were enthused by the idea of an architecture of civility – the means as they saw it to generate citizenship, community and well mannered civility in English cities.

Yet when planners view their mission as a civilising one, then the aim of building public space must be to eradicate behaviour that doesn’t accord with perceived civic values. As Austin Williams has pointed out, the urban renaissance vision for ‘improving the quality of public space’ was ultimately less about café culture, boulevards and loft living, and more about ‘tackling failure, such as litter, graffiti, fly-tipping, abandoned cars, dog fouling (and) the loss of play areas or footpaths.’ Consequently, whether buildings or squares looked beautiful became a distinctly minor consideration to ensuring they would help regulate the behaviour of the communities who used them, whether through designing out crime, stopping people loitering or driving, or increasing the numbers prepared to take part in community events.

More recently, as fears over societal fragmentation, social cohesion and dysfunctional behaviour have increased, the areas into which officialdom is prepared to intervene have steadily grown. At the forefront of this process has been the idea that when left to our own devices, we the public often make wrong personal choices – particularly in the sphere of personal health where smoking, binge drinking, eating the wrong foods, and sedentary lifestyles are held to be rife.

Planners and designers have not been slow to form alliances with public health organisations in the rush to the rescue supposedly sedentary Britain. The latest example is the Design Council which will host what it calls an ‘Active Design’ symposium. Bringing together leading public health, architecture and planning professionals, they will examine ‘practical ways to incorporate and prioritise activity’ in new buildings and spaces, and assess how design can encourage us to be fitter and healthier. With the speakers including David Burney, the New York health czar who has pioneered environmental designs based on restrictive health guidelines and Lesley Mountford of Hackney Council which is considering New York style bans on shops selling the ‘wrong’ types of food, then it’s not difficult to anticipate the further expansion of planning into areas of our lives where in the past we were trusted to make our own choices.

With the ‘Healthy Cities’ agenda now firmly established, it’s no longer uncommon for the likes of the World Health Organisation to meet with city leaders to ensure they are focussing their planning departments on creating ‘healthy development’ plans for our physical activity. Meanwhile transport planers spend less time thinking about getting us quickly and efficiently from A to B and considerably more on working out how to promote their ‘active travel’ schemes, prescribing use of our own muscle power as an antidote to ending up a few pounds over our ‘target’ weight.

Fair enough, one might be tempted to argue: if buildings and neighbourhoods can be made more walkable through better planning then why not do so? However, as Mirko Zardini has noted in an interesting book on the trend towards the medicalisation of architecture, we appear to be so carried away by the idea of health that we are creating a new moralistic philosophy of ‘healthism’. Here health is no longer identified primarily with the absence of illness, but rather with a state of general well-being – one that is not so much physical and biological but rather social, cultural and ultimately moral.

The sphere of public health has played a vital in establishing an important broader change in how we view ourselves and our fellow public within the urban spaces we inhabit, and has helped pave the way for the expanded regulatory reach of planners. Today the dominant idea has become that we are in need of protection, both from ourselves – so to avert our hopeless predilection towards making poor choices, and more widely from other people who might prove a bad influence on our behaviour, cause offence, or who we may otherwise less than capable of confidently interacting with.

Consequently, the controls now exercised by planning authorities now stretch well beyond the number of stories permissible or particular design of a façade into much more detailed interest in how space will be arranged and monitored so best to protect us from our the smokers, drinkers, charity collectors, leafleters, bullying children, or generally anyone who potentially might cause offence through their actions or speech. Increasingly places are being designed and regulated to place the onus on our fellow adults to justify why they should be present in a particular street or park, for example, where children are playing. Even dog walking is now an activity deemed necessary to sanction with particular urban spaces declared off limits to man and his mutt.

In this context, the new growth statement may well help get planners off our backs if the question is merely how far the conservatory can be extended into the garden. But far more worrying is the wider expansion of planning and design into the sphere of regulating individual behaviour and personal choices. Unless we take a stance for ourselves as confident adults who are capable of looking after ourselves and making our own decisions, then we’re likely to find that ever more areas of life are subject to interference by planners and other officials. In that sense, there’s never been a better time to get planners off our backs.


Alastair Donald is Associate Director of the Future Cities Project. He’s convenor of the URBAN LIVING strand of debates at Battle of Ideas 2012


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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