On Monday I gave evidence to MPs on the future of high streets and town centres. To my left was a portrait of a rather wild-looking Margaret Thatcher.
It was somehow appropriate that her ghost should grimace over the discussions. What the grocer’s daughter would make of a world where groceries are shipped from vast motorwayside warehouses and shoppers increasingly interact only with self-service machines, and of her role in ushering in this atomised life, we’ll fortunately never know.
What she and her acolytes do bear responsibility for, though, is the devaluing of public services and local government that has made it harder to mitigate the adverse effects of changes in our town centres over the last three decades. With a brief interlude in the 2000s, the UK – and England in particular – has fostered a culture in which public servants have been consistently denigrated as stuffy bureaucrats and enemies of innovation.
The members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee at this week’s hearing were particularly interested in planning. They wanted to know whether planners were up to the job of shaping the future of town centres, whether they had the right skills and the right powers.
There’s plenty of evidence that planning has been hard hit by local government cuts in recent years – the planners’ professional body, the RTPI, points to a 46% reduction in spending on planning in northwest England in the last five years. More important than the raw figures, though, is the loss of institutional capacity. The recent interim report of the Raynsford Review of planning described the service as ‘chronically underfunded’ and planners as ‘often demoralised by the constraints within which they are working’.
Planners who are driven by targets and throughput may become adept at implementing rules, but also become risk-averse and less able to think strategically. The reflective practice that is essential to professional development and the acquisition of situated knowledge becomes squeezed out.
At their best, planners can bring together multiple competing interests around a vision for the future of a place, linking political and social aspirations with their spatial consequences. They can be designers, protectors of what is special and distinctive, and skilful interpreters of local hopes.
To do that, they need the space and capacity for big-picture thinking, time for community-wide deliberation, and the local knowledge that comes from spending time out of the office in streets, pubs, shops and community centres. Planning, in short, needs what is too easily dismissed as waste and inefficiency: the grounded knowledge that, in the words of one academic, links roots into the past with routes towards the future.
Planners require technical, job-specific skills which, by and large, are well provided by universities and professional bodies. But they also need people skills, and without the people, their visions perish.
Successful places, and successful town centres in particular, are people places: they need to be sociable, sustainable, affordable and accessible. The planner’s real skill is to bring people together in a world in which the pace of change demands that plans assist evolution rather than fossilise the present.
• My written evidence to the committee can be found here.