Dear Prime Minister ...

In the last issue we reported David Cameron's claim that slow-moving planners were the 'enemies of enterprise'. Here is a selection of readers' responses.

Ministers still sing from Thatcher's hymn sheet

When the Thatcher Government was new, I remember attending a Planning Inspectorate annual general meeting. Michael Heseltine, the new secretary of state for the environment, made a speech attacking planners for locking up millions of pounds and thousands of jobs in their filing cabinets.

Every subsequent minister who held the planning portfolio in the Thatcher and Major Governments parroted almost exactly the same words, and I remember at least one Labour minister saying something similar.

It is as though the moment the planning portfolio changes hands, the Confederation of British Industry, housebuilders or some other bodies lobby the new minister with the same arguments which are swallowed whole and regurgitated verbatim. Now it's the Prime Minister who doesn't realise that we have heard it all before and that it is less true now than it was 30 years ago.

Perhaps the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) ought to prepare a note to send to new Prime Ministers and planning ministers, warning them that they will come under pressure to attack planners for holding back enterprise, asking them not to repeat this stale garbage and giving them chapter and verse to show that the attacks are unjustified.
Frank Cosgrove, by email

Planners are not enemies in the eyes of industry

If I were looking for the enemies of enterprise, I would not be chastising town hall officials for sitting on the odd planning application. I would direct my attention to the bankers and those who allowed the financial cataclysm in the first place.

Yet RTPI chief executive Trudi Elliott offers sage advice when she says that we cannot simply disagree with Government. We should be as polite and helpful as we can. We mustn't waste time trying to build relationships with those who trade in common abuse. Instead, let us seek alliances with lobbies more powerful than us who can see the need for planning.

Start with the Confederation of British Industry, where director-general John Cridland was reported to be concerned by the loss of regional planning and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. And follow with the National Trust, where director-general Dame Fiona Reynolds led a successful campaign to stop the sale of publicly owned forests.

We need to build a widely based coalition of those in favour of planning and campaign for planning that goes beyond political agendas. The question should be simple: what sort of planning system do we want to underpin our economy and protect our environment over the next decade?
Professor Ian Wray, University of Liverpool

Local authorities promote enterprise in myriad ways

I spent many years as the chief planning officer of a local authority. One of my main responsibilities was to ensure that infrastructure was in place to allow businesses to thrive in a growth environment.

Because of a failure of the private sector to build sufficient small units to accommodate business start-ups, my council acquired land and built premises for small firms. We helped to nurture those firms in their early years. Several large international companies, one home grown, thrived in our town. Many authorities, of course, act in this and more ambitious ways.

It was extremely insulting, then, to hear the Prime Minister's implication that members of our profession are "enemies of enterprise". It displayed either the depth of his ignorance about what local councils do or showed his reluctance to acknowledge it in public.

The Prime Minister needs reminding that many planning proposals involve conflict between the intentions of the applicant and the wishes of residents and amenity groups. Cameron should understand that the economic recovery does not rely exclusively on risk-takers in the private sector, but also on the ingenuity and dedication of public servants at local and national level. It is a shame that he doesn't give them the credit they deserve.
Anthony Slack, Hastings

Make our voices heard and make planning count

The last issue of Planning (11 March) tells a depressing tale of planning and the role of the RTPI, and leads me to question: what is the point of the RTPI?

The institute's response has always been that its role is to promote better planning and that it does this through lobbying and work behind the scenes. Chief executive Trudi Elliott tells us that this has resulted in an amendment to the duty to cooperate and cites this as a key example of the RTPI's success.

One amendment, however big or small, is an incredibly poor show for 18 months of working with the Conservatives and £5 million of our membership fees.

In the same issue, we have quotes from Vince Cable, David Cameron and Eric Pickles saying how wasteful, bureaucratic and detrimental not only the planning system is, but also planners themselves are. It appears that working in the background hasn't stopped the grandstanding speeches about planning being the root of all evil that ultimately end up with projects being cut and planners being laid off.

So what is the role of the RTPI and what is it going to do to defend planning at this crucial time?
Neil Hook, Enfield

In Defence of the PM: Swallow your outrage and prove that planning is a noble profession

In the last issue, the Prime Minister is quoted as saying that planning officials are among the "enemies of enterprise" (Planning, 11 March, p6). I can hear the roar of indignation at the mere suggestion, yet let us ponder and take stock. Cameron is right to highlight that it is planning officials who are the problem. With a little modification, the system is a sound one that is fit for purpose. It is the practitioners of the system who give cause for concern.

Planning has the ability to enrich our lives and deliver a little magic. This is never more so than in times of economic difficulty when planning has the opportunity to respond to the changing times, relax policy, assist in regeneration initiatives and show an understanding of the dire circumstances in which the nation finds itself. Yet it seems the attitude of many planners is just as obstructive and dismissive as ever.

The simplest applications are fretted over and trivia take on titanic proportions. If only planners would stop and ask: "Does it really matter?". If it doesn't, then spend no more time on it, approve it and move on. Planners should be enablers, should lead the regeneration debate not obstruct it, should deliver the dream not just talk about it - or worse, crush it.

The current craze for simply refusing an application without any dialogue fosters the impression of an insular and controlling profession. My greatest fear is that if this type of arrogance persists, then sooner or later someone will ask: "Why do we need planners?". If they are not prepared to engage in intellectual debate or to give of their experience and knowledge, instead referring the applicant to the relevant local plan, then what use are the planners?

The Prime Minister is right in his assertions: we are not delivering the promise. A bad system can be made to work if the practitioners are enlightened. A good system cannot be made fit for purpose if the practitioners are indifferent and I suspect that is the current position.
Don Bennett, principal, Bennett Developments and Consulting

The RTPI's response

RTPI president Richard Summers calls for professional unity in countering attacks on planning

I share the outrage of every planner in Britain at the ill-informed attacks on planning and planners in the run-up to last week's Budget. Ministers have targeted us as the "enemies of enterprise" to justify proposals for another 20 enterprise zones, as if there wasn't a Localism Bill going through Parliament at the same time.

Blaming "bizarre planning rules" for contributing to the slowdown in construction, house prices and business activity and claiming that planning is a barrier to development and social mobility is nonsense. The global recession is the cause for the slow down in the property market, not the planning system.

We are not alone in this. Senior civil servants and others in the public sector have also been outraged by these criticisms. The planning profession can and must unite to reject these attacks. We must be strong in proposing better ways to improve the planning system to help achieve the Government's aims.

I have pledged as RTPI president to promote planning and planners in challenging times. We must stand up for planning in public and behind the scenes to ensure that we have a planning system that is fit for the future. I need all our 23,000 members to help. It's no good blaming the RTPI when things get tough. We must all support the planning profession.

The RTPI wants the national planning policy framework included in statute, a much stronger duty to cooperate, a clear primacy for local plans and simpler neighbourhood planning. We can also work with the new enterprise zones if they make a real difference to bottom-line economic growth. But the Government must live up to its claim to support planning.

Let us all help build a profession that is fiercely proud of its abilities and its achievements ready for the RTPI's centenary in 2014.


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