Battle to boost status of profession goes on

A lot of things in the planning profession have changed since 26 April 1972, when the first edition of this journal appeared.

Thamesmead. J@ck photo
Thamesmead. J@ck photo

County planning officers, then the most powerful group of individuals in the profession, now barely exist. The proportion of planners that work in the private sector has grown hugely. And pipe-smokers are no longer welcome to light up at their desks.

But, reading the first issue, many of the issues and attitudes seem strikingly familiar. There's much less starry-eyed enthusing about ring roads and high-rise living than conventional wisdom would lead you to expect.

Instead, the views of planners often sound very prescient. Okay, the soon-to-be-notorious Thamesmead scheme is described as "spectacular and award-winning". But the writers (who were working local authority planners) also note concerns about a lack of local jobs and open space. Urgent action is needed "if the early residents are not to be stranded in a concrete wilderness," they say.

Elsewhere in the first issue, there is a report of an evangelist for out-of-town shopping getting a hostile reception at a Royal Town Planning Institute meeting. Fears about the arrival of what was seen as the continental hypermarket were clearly rife.

In both instances, planners clearly saw that the tide of development activity was drifting in a dangerous direction, and signalled it to the wider world.

The old news reports are a reminder that the problems caused by badly planned development are often foreseeable, and foreseen by planners. Thamesmead residents and town centre retailers would later have cause to wish that the concerns voiced in that first issue had been heeded.

Prophesying doom, however, is no good if nobody listens to your warnings. It's sobering to realise that the profession seems generally to have been opposed to out-of-town retail in 1972, when you know that less than half of current retail floorspace now lies in town, and one in seven British town centre shops are vacant. You ask yourself why the profession has not been more influential over the past 40 years.

The first issue provides some clues, not least in the report of the heated hypermarket debate. After detailing some vocal opposition to the out-of-town concept, the writer rather mildly concludes that "the hypermarket seemed to be accepted as having a role to play, but the question of what role and where was left largely unanswered". Hardly the sort of talk that would lead colleagues to the barricades, and perhaps planners' professional inclination to compromise sometimes leaves them ill-equipped to fight, rather than try to mitigate, unhealthy trends in development.

As the first leader explains, Planning was founded in the hope that the very presence of a regular professional journal would build the "status and cohesiveness" of the profession. It was a worthy ambition, and one that we share.

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