"Are you in planning and have a family member in planning? Would you like to tell your story as part of the institute's promotion of lifelong learning and careers in planning? You and your relative's story will be published in Planning magazine." This note on the RTPI bulletin board (Planning, 21 October, p29) drew me like a magnet.
It was not just the opportunity to get published in Planning, attractive as that prospect is. No, the irresistible pull was the chance to have in print, in no less an organ than the "journal of the Royal Town Planning Institute", the fact that my four children are planners. Once this piece appears, further denials will be futile.
Those who have been reading this column for years may recall some of the background. However, if you missed the chronicles of the Hague family in the 20th century, here is a brief resume. Back in 1987 Alice, then 13, became the first of the four Hague children to become famous by being mentioned in Planning.
She was doing a school project about the Union Canal. I accompanied her to a presentation about the canal's history at an evening meeting of a local literary and scientific society in Edinburgh. I wrote about the experience in my column, wondering how long such bodies whose members are drawn from a generation that communicated face to face would be able to survive in a culture increasingly dominated by electronic media.
From that point on there was intense competition among Alice's siblings to emulate her. Euan conjured the Torquay United Scottish Supporters Club into being and their trips to Carlisle and Stockport were featured in these pages. Celia and Sophie's mischievous use of a cold wet sponge to wake me up was one of the highlights of 1988. The exploits of Nelson, the one-eyed goldfish with attitude, who resided in my wife's classroom during term time but was part of the family during the vacations, also figured.
Suffice to say, lest anyone should have doubts, this was all about planning and therefore the four young Hagues were evidently on track to become planners. I pointed this out to them at every opportunity. However, they were resolutely in denial about the connection. The more I extolled the virtues of planning as a career, the more determined and prolonged became their yawns. Just as I could articulate the connection to planning of almost any activity they undertook, so they developed and honed their own skills in counter-argument, though this did not stop them churning out exemplary school projects on shopping centres, council housing or their neighbourhood.
When driving them to dancing classes, football, swimming, scout and guide camps or the myriad other pursuits in which they were involved, I was always more than willing to provide a commentary explaining the locale from a planner's perspective. My detour into Easterhouse to allow them to observe the townscape of a peripheral Glasgow housing estate in relentless Scottish rain was particularly compulsive, as I recall. No visit to Old Trafford was complete without a lecture on the origins and subsequent decline of the Manchester Ship Canal and Trafford Park as well as a comprehensive review of the enterprise zone and urban development corporation as regeneration initiatives.
So what happened next? Well, they all still distance themselves from the notion that they are planners. But I leave you to judge from the following vignettes. Euan studied geography. His undergraduate dissertation was supervised by Paul Cloke, an expert in rural development and change whose work is known by many planners. A master's degree in cultural studies followed, with a thesis that analysed the cultural construction of micro-space in a nightclub. After his PhD in the USA he was at Staffordshire University for two years, where his research included work on regeneration in the Potteries.
He now teaches in a geography department in Chicago, where he is also helping a low-income Mexican community in a neighbourhood threatened with gentrification. He recently appeared on their behalf before Chicago's planning committee to oppose rezoning proposals in their area. He says that he is an "urban geographer". His sisters are less than convinced that this is the best description.
Alice has a degree in applied biology, which included a year in practice working for the Forestry Commission. A post-graduate qualification in communicating science to the public, including a thesis on botanical gardens, eventually took her to the post of education manager at Sensation, the science centre that forms part of Dundee's regeneration strategy.
While there she had a secondment to the local enterprise agency and then moved to the British embassy in Stockholm, where she does science liaison and science-based business development. This includes taking members of the House of Commons science and technology select committee on site visits to energy efficient neighbourhood regeneration schemes in Sweden. Forestry, landscape and the environment, economic development, urban regeneration.
Hmm, I sense the "P" word there.
Celia read German and English for her degree and reckoned that this made her planning-proof. She was equally careful in her choice of career - hotel management and the hospitality industry seemed safe. However, things have taken a dramatic turn. She has been invited to be a member of the board of the body overseeing tourist development and regeneration of the area around the waterfront where she works. A fair cop, says I.
Always last, but never least, is Sophie, the youngest and most challenging to fit into the remorseless family march into planning. A BA in social and political studies was followed by a master's degree in international relations and a PhD that compared the responses of Indonesia and Malaysia to the Asian economic crisis of 1997. A post-doctoral year in Manchester, during which she lived in Hulme, raised my hopes that a claim of planning by association with urban regeneration might do the trick. However, she has now moved to London and a desk in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Superficially, it might appear that I have lost on Sophie. However, as any academic student of planning knows, there is substantive theory concerning places and procedural theory that defines planning as a general process of decision-making. In this procedural sense, nobody who has met and thus had the good fortune to be organised by her will doubt that Sophie is truly a planner - a goal-oriented, rational decision-maker.
So, four out of four. I have always stood for a view of planning that is confidently fuzzy at the edges, rather than narrowly concerned with land-use control, and a profession that is inclusive rather than exclusive, dynamic not static. As for the lifelong learning bit, that comes through inventing and defending convoluted explanations of how doing things that seem far removed from planning actually makes you a planner. Trying to convince your kids that they are planners is good continuing professional development.