Shepley on ... making planning a fit subject for television gossip

I am in the middle, at the time of writing, of chairing the examination in public into the draft North West regional spatial strategy. This is of course extremely interesting and raises many issues of a contemporary and profound nature. We are hearing evidence and indeed groping towards conclusions on practically every topic that is of relevance to readers of this organ.

Unfortunately, and this is a handicap for any columnist, I am not at liberty to write about any of these issues. Or at least not until the new year when, helped by my colleagues, I shall write about them in my report to the secretary of state at considerable length and with fewer jokes than this column normally attempts. For the moment, I shall have to extemporise.

But there is one thing that I think I can usefully say at this stage.

If you submitted evidence then it was probably too long. The merest glance at the Himalaya of files in the dining room would confirm this. So if you are going to be making representations in a future case, and this applies to ordinary inquiries too, you could do yourself a favour by following this handy set of rules. First, write it. Second, reduce it by half. Third, reduce it by half again. Fourth, send it in.

Meanwhile, I had better talk about the weather. Are you as irritated as I am by that little man who does the forecast on the BBC and advises us to "get the parka out of the cupboard" and talks about "numbers" rather than temperatures? This is part of a reorientation of weather forecasting as gossip, the news as a magazine programme and fact as entertainment.

Never mind the isobars, feel the fashion advice. Never mind the latest from Darfur, let's send Natasha to Driffield to talk about potatoes.

But hang on a minute. Perhaps this is relevant after all. Town planning is seen as boring by the media, even though the North West Plan and many others like it will affect people in lots of interesting and hopefully useful ways. But it is definitely not a subject for prime-time viewing unless someone is having a violent argument or yet another dull joke about Prescott's Jags can somehow be squeezed in. Programmes such as Restoration or Demolition potter around the edges of planning without really explaining what it is all about or identifying the inherent conflicts and conundrums.

So do we dumb down too? Maybe I should call my report Altercation! or Revelation! Maybe I should sex up the housing forecasts, put Natasha on the cover and advise the secretary of state on what to wear while reading it: "Hunt out the crash helmet." Or is that taking plain English too far?

Chris Shepley is principal of Chris Shepley Planning and a former chief planning inspector for England and Wales.


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