You can probably (just about) be forgiven for not noticing, but BBC2 is currently broadcasting The Planners, an imaginatively-titled fly-on-the-wall type documentary following various planning departments up and down the country as they, in theory, attempt to cope with the Coalition’s great SHAKE UPPPPPP of the planning system.
As with a lot of these kinds of shows, it’s not so much of an informative look into an arguably misunderstood profession, but more an excuse to gawp at members of The Great British Public getting angry and shouting and, in this case, fishing for newts. I guess the USP here is that not only do they get to shout at each other, but also at their faceless bureaucratic oppressors and their elected overlords. And we get eight whole weeks of this, you say?
I’m probably being slightly unfair here; it is a decent slice of television, slickly produced (looks real nice in HD), with clearly defined ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, and this first episode does raise at least one fairly important issue in amongst the oft-hysterical emoting.
Something the first episode does steadfastly ignore is to provide any real explanation as to how the planning officers make their decisions. Certified planners are bound by the RTPI Code of Conduct, which states that planners should;
fearlessly and impartially exercise their independent professional judgement to the best of their skill and understanding
(If you want to read more of the RTPI’s code of conduct, feel free.)
What this essentially communicates is that planners are bound to make judgements based on a professional opinion, not a personal one, and in that they are bound by the law under which they operate – local plans, legislation, statutes etc. I imagine this is true of most professional roles.
This particularly comes into view during the fourth case introduced in this first episode, that of the old couple in Chester who wanted to put solar panels on their roof. If you’ve watched this episode, you’ll be aware of who I mean – the doddery old couple with the utterly charming disposition, who wanted to coat their roof in solar panels for seemingly no reason other than they felt it was the right thing to do. Seriously, they were so charming. At one point they said that it would take them until they were both about 95 to see any financial return from their investment, with the pretty obvious subtext that they likely wouldn’t be alive then and thus would never see a financial return from their investment. But that doesn’t in any way put them off. See? Charming. So very charming.
Their problem was that their house was a pretty old building, directly next to Chester’s city wall, and thus subject to being a listed building and in a conservation area.
The officer who visited to make the initial assessment turned them down, due to the impact the panels would have on the historic appearance of the city and the views from the city wall, which dates back to Roman times. Which is, you know, pretty old. If you watched to the end, you’ll know that the planning committee eventually ignored the recommendations of the officer, and granted permission for the panels. Several things emerge from this;
- Based on the requirements of their position, the planners were absolutely right to turn down the application. The solar panels quite clearly impact upon and modify the historic fabric of the city, and the planner was completely following their professional responsibilities in refusing them.
- The planning committee is made up of elected officials, not professional planners, and as such they are not bound by the RTPI code of conduct. Whilst they must act within the law, they are they not obliged to follow things like local plans in the way planners are. In theory, they should also act impartially, but… well… you know.
- However, given all of this, I think the committee’s decision was ultimately the correct one.
This raises a pretty important question though, given the growing emphasis on sustainability that development policy has had for the last 15ish years. What should win out between our longstanding urge to preserve important aspects of the past, and our new desires for sustainability and decentralised energy generation? Furthermore, do we preserve our historic places as is, or do we allow them to grow and adapt to a changing world?
This is obviously an issue of pretty paramount importance right now, and one that clearly is going to have to be solved sooner rather than later. Ultimately, I don’t think the panels had that much of an impact, but that comes down to a personal value judgement and I accept that. It’s also probably worth mentioning I have pretty strong opinions on historical preservation interfering with modern life, particularly when the “tourist” word is invoked.
But I think what you can unequivocally draw from this is a clear example of a professional making the correct decision, but based on legislation and regulations that are potentially no longer fit for the time they find themselves in, something which the programme frustratingly failed to cover.
The Planners is currently airing Thursday nights on BBC2 at 8pm. There are (apparently) some upcoming episodes filmed in Edinburgh, including one that will cover the absolutely ghastly new Napier University halls going up opposite Fountainpark. I’m very interested to see how those got through, considering that this city is supposed to have pretty strict design guidelines…