Planners' role is a noble one

Jon Rouse makes his case for why planning matters and should be respected as a profession

Some time ago, the Royal Town Planning Institute granted me an honorary membership. Since then, I have felt a strong responsibility to promote the role of planning as a positive agent of social change and as a worthwhile career.

The importance of planning's role has been brought home to me by the August riots. As everyone knows, Croydon was one of the worst-hit places. This was for various reasons, not least because we were one of the last locations in London to be targeted and the police resource by that stage was largely exhausted. As a result, we suffered much property damage, including serious arson. Sadly, some of Croydon's best-loved older buildings, including the iconic Reeves furniture store, were burned to the ground.

From the outset, it was obvious that planning officers were crucial to the effectiveness of our response. From the very first meetings with the business community, they were present to advise and to plot a way forward. They were there alongside building control colleagues as we dismantled dangerous structures while seeking to preserve what we could salvage of heritage value.

Before the end of the first week of recovery, the planning team started to draw up briefs to guide the re-building. These have been collaborative exercises, working where possible with the site owners. We also quickly launched a review of shutters policy for shops, drawing on the evidence of the riots and known best practice.

As we continued to undertake community meetings, it was striking how planning issues began to dominate. In the early days, the focus had been almost exclusively on business recovery, individual welfare needs and the policing response. But then environmental issues started to come to the fore, particularly in West Croydon, which was the worst-hit area.

As well as these local concerns, the residents were asking some big planning questions. How did the council's town centre masterplans relate to their areas? Did they deal adequately with the gateways to the centre? Had the council got the right balance of homes and community facilities, particularly in some of the more deprived areas of the borough?

In the fast-moving post-riot situation, land use planning has proven to be vital. Although I would not for one moment claim that we have got everything right in the last three months, what is unquestionable is that the planning team have been to the fore, seeking to be a positive force for recovery and regeneration.

They have combined their design, conservation, plan-making and control responsibilities to seek to push things forward on the ground. They are using core skills of creativity, interpretation, negotiation and mediation to brigade different interests around a set of common goals.

That, in short, is why planning matters and why I will continue to advocate its benefits on behalf of all those who make it their vocation.

Jon Rouse is chief executive at the London Borough of Croydon.

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