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NIMBYs, Barbour-jacketed leftists and us

20th September 2011

By Rob Cowan

The politics are hotting up. Planning, we are told, must shift the balance of its social, environmental and economic goals towards the economic one – as embodied in the planning proposals of developers and other seekers of planning permission.

We have seen this stage of the political cycle before. First the built environment professions politely object, and are written off as having vested interests. Next the conservative- (and generally Conservative-) minded pressure groups, such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England object, and are duly dismissed as NIMBYs or Barbour-jacketed leftists. But in the past, the planning system has survived. People with political clout tend to live in places that they are keen to protect.

Let’s give the government its due. Yes, the planning system has been dysfunctional. Yes, we do need to focus on boosting the economy. But let us not kid ourselves that economic issues can be neatly extricated from social and environmental ones. Do riots and other forms of social breakdown have an impact on the economy? Do attractive historic places have economic value? Do people who invest in buildings look for confidence that public authorities will do what they can to ensure that the quality of the area in which they are investing will be maintained? They do.

If economic growth is what we want, we need to promote development that has positive social and environmental value. Planning was invented because in the early twentieth century it was realised that the market by itself did not make the necessary fine judgements between economic, social and environmental issues.

It is easy enough to say that the interests of economic growth are represented by the immediate priorities of whoever happens to be applying for planning permission at that moment. But development decisions have impacts on other times and other places – as Mrs Brundtland (currently being quoted approvingly by the government in the draft National Planning Policy Framework) reminded us. Reconciling those impacts depends on a reflective planning process, not a purely permissive one.

In the long run those who advocate such thoughtfulness may yet see such a process emerging, in creative response to the economic turbulence and climate change that threaten to engulf us. But present indications are that the planning system may be in for a few years of confusion before such sanity prevails.



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