Friday, 23 May 2014

Why I'm not a planner, nor proud of planning

I'm having second thoughts about writing and posting this because of the terrible events at the Glasgow School of Art this afternoon.

But, I feel I should. There's been a wee bit of a hoo-ha in planning circles, much of which I agree with. A group called NOVUS/Public Planners has developed, and you can read their manifesto here. On a mailing list of a progressive planning network I'm a member of - Planners Network UK - we were discussing how we might make links with them. If you want to join the list you can quite easily through the JISC service. I chipped into this debate saying that the Public Planners was an excellent development, and it's something that I've seen in my own students as they question why planning has to be in constant hock to development interests and solely about enabling development, no matter how bad it is, or "sustainable economic growth".

The rest of this post is going to be a blogpost I put on the virtual learning environment for one of the courses I teach. I didn't make it more public as I didn't want to incur the wrath of the Royal Town Planning Institute. I'm now minded to post it here, firstly because of Public Planners raising the profile of progressive planning; secondly because I have now resigned from the RTPI myself. And lastly, because I received an anonymous email alleging that the RTPI had investigated a member for breach of the code of conduct because they were involved in activism around progressive planning. This final alleged incident makes me ashamed I was ever even a member of the RTPI, and make me very angry at their "proud of planning, proud of planners" nonsense.

So, here goes. Here's the post I wrote for my students. Quite a number of them came up to me in the weeks after posting it to say thank you to me for writing it, and saying they wholly agreed with what I was saying. So thank you to those students.

"I've mainly used the blog [on the VLE] as a bit of a one-way street - just to get information out to you all in a way that isn't announcement. However, if you've bumped into my personal blog you will have seen that ordinarily my blogging is more thoughtful and reflexive. So, this is time for that sort of blog post on here.
Yesterday I emailed the Royal Town Planning Institute to resign as a licentiate member and cancelled my direct debt. I am no longer a planner. I was very struck by the comment in the stop-start-continue of "what are the links between this and planning" and that, for me, is why I'm no longer a planner. I veered away from land-use planning during my PhD which focused on community planning as the spatial coordination of all public services and if you look at my publications list you'll see that my focus has been predominantly on policy analysis, housing and public policy. 
But as I've drifted away from planning in my research interest, I feel planning has drifted away from me. It now seems entirely about delivering development, no matter what the environmental or social cost. There are political, contextual drivers for this. In England planning is under assault from a neoliberal government that wishes to see it end. Neighbourhood planning is actually about disempowering people. In Scotland, the desire for "sustainable economic growth" (North Sea Oil and wind turbines) drives everything. Mention those three words and anything gets built. PLanning has been left to become a "yes man" to new development, with a vague inclination to "good" design, which increasingly just means making photocopy places that look a little bit less bad than they used to.
I've mentioned in class, if you studied planning in Scotland ten or 20 years ago, it would have been all about the sort of stuff you've learnt in Social Sustainability. The massive urban regeneration programme New Life for Urban Scotland sought to transform disadvantaged communities and was driven by people from a planning background. Even when I studied at Heriot-Watt in 2005-6 I specialised in Urban Regeneration which was all about the social side of planning and ensuring we didn't forget the needs of the worst-off and deprived communities when we delivered new development. For me, now, regeneration is just about putting shopping centres next to peripheral housing estates and using city centre sites to drive gentrification and prettify the urban environment by forcibly excluding those we don't like (the poor) through forcible eviction or creating homes and places solely for the wealthy.
A chink of light for me is the Scottish RTPI's best places competition. When this was launched, I rolled my eyes and suspected it would consist of "places" like Polnoon, or The Drum in Bo'ness basically glorified lollipop stick housing estates with funky Scandinavian housing. However, I was really impressed that East Kilbride made the final list. East Kilbride was designated a new town in 1947 and nearly 70 years later it is now Scotland's sixth largest settlement and a successful place where people want to live. It's a diverse town too. They weren't just planning a nice housing estate, they were planning an entire community, with everything it needed.
That we can still recognise the great work these planners did fills me with hope that we can rediscover the social purpose of planning. That the RTPI officials feel the "viability of development" must be the most important thing planners focus on fills me with disenchantment and despondency. 
If you want to focus on the social side of planning, and you are going to be a planner in the UK, I really would recommend membership of the TCPA which lives on the fulfill the dreams Ebenezer Howard hard over a century ago (and who's journal is a superb resource) and get involved in Planners Network UK."


  1. This is great, Peter, and I'm sorry only to have come across it today (New Year's Day 2015) via your Twitter post. I'm in England and in Planners Network UK (which you refer to) and share your acute embarrassment at the "proud of planners" tags and related branding moves. It is - if true - shocking for the RTPI to have investigated a member for activism...

    Like you I recently joined the TCPA and, as expected, find it committed to somewhat more progressive values. However they do seem to be hopelessly hooked on garden cities to a degree which undermines the logic and power of their position. Good on inequality.

    Moves are afoot to give PNUK a new lease of life and that should include a re-vamp of the web site. If anyone wants to join in and help that would be great!

    Happy new year to you all. Michael Edwards

  2. This is challenging but also sad reading and resonates so much with what seems to be happening throughout the neo-liberal world. It is people like you, dedicated to creating a more socially and spatially just built environment who would be welcome to the Isocarp (International Society of City and Regional Planners) congress in October 2015. 12 cities are hosting hands-on workshops in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium and many are focusing on these aspects. For its 50th anniversary Isocarp intends to 're-think' planning as many of our members and especially the younger ones are dissatisfied with the aspects you are describing so potently. See and please join us. TCPA is an institutional member of Isocarp. Judith Ryser