Marathon man moves on

Departing RTPI policy chief Kelvin MacDonald insists that planners' vital role is acknowledged again after the wilderness years but they must keep spreading the word, he tells Huw Morris.

Kelvin MacDonald: departing RTPI policy chief
Kelvin MacDonald: departing RTPI policy chief

When not championing the cause of planning, Kelvin MacDonald spends his time running. Kitted out in kilt and tam o'shanter, he completed this month's New York marathon "needing a calendar rather than a stopwatch" to time his performance.

MacDonald is leaving his role as RTPI chief policy adviser to work as a consultant, lecturer and trainer. It's the latest step in a career that has taken in local and central government, academia and seven years as director of ROOM, the National Housing and Town Planning Council.

As assistant director of the Town and Country Planning Association in the early 1980s, he submitted an application for a third London airport. "We sent an application for a site based on a sand bank in the Thames the day before planning fees were introduced. The chief planner called me into his office, asked me if I wanted a sherry and said he'd never had such an application before."

It was a presentation on the 1964 South East Plan at a school geography conference that sparked MacDonald's involvement in what he describes as "41 years of idealism". Planning was still seen as "part of this great social endeavour" along with the NHS and free education. "Everything seemed possible. We were trying to build communities, not just buildings," he says.

"You could design something, it would be built and everyone was getting things done. No-one was saying: 'We will do the plan and then do it again in five years' time.' You got on with it. Planning was centre stage. Under Harold Wilson's Labour government, there was a national feeling that the UK was pulling together and we ought to serve people right."

MacDonald concedes that the profession has not always been so positive. He alludes to the slide after 1979 when the sector lost much of its idealism, a trend he believes it has come to regret. "Planning only served as a regulator and was there to stop things happening. I do wonder whether some of our members contributed to this. If you are forced back into regulation, you develop a regulatory mode of thinking. In that fallow period of the 1980s and 1990s, we lived our own image."

Today he is much more optimistic, pointing to a study of spatial planning carried out on the RTPI's behalf by University College London and Deloitte (Planning, 1 June, p10). This offers detailed case studies of the public and private sectors working closely together to link investment programmes and meet community objectives. Even the Treasury, rarely the sector's best friend, now recognises that spatial and investment planning cannot be separated.

"The core of people who kept the flame alive for 20 years are now coming back into their own. Amid all our battles, it should be a no-brainer that planning contributes to sustainable economic development. Planning makes markets, it does not destroy them," MacDonald maintains.

"Some of the debates we have are false ones. Planning is a force for growth and it's down to us that people realise the truth. We must be far more active and engage far more as a profession. We cannot sit back and sigh that things would be so different if only others understood."

He has sympathy for developers who see schemes thrown out by members despite lengthy pre-application talks. Councillors may not recognise the implications of their votes, he suggests. "Officers have a duty to recognise the political reality in which they work and sometimes they take a purist view. It must be part of a professional's responsibility to understand where councillors are coming from and relay that political reality to the applicant."

He intends to return to this issue when holding training seminars for councillors. But he bridles at the oft-heard claim that planners delay construction. "If there were no planning system, house builders' portfolios would plummet, their share prices would drop and they would be out of business," he argues.

"With all the land banking going on, they should stop pretending that it's planning pushing up house prices. The worst thing for the development industry would be to sweep away certainty. House builders know that they have adequate land supply. Why can't we work together instead of having this constant battle?"

Such arguments miss the whole point of planning and the economic, environmental and social rationale behind it, he complains. "You don't reconcile these aims by choosing the lowest common denominator. It's not about going for economic growth or protecting the environment and having no jobs. The joy of planning is to try and hit economic, social and environmental targets."

Age: 60
Family: Married with three children
Education: BSc in town and country planning, Heriot-Watt University and
Edinburgh College of Art, 1972
Interests: Running
2002: Chief policy adviser, RTPI
1995: Director, ROOM
1991: Principal lecturer, University of Westminster
1984: Principal planning officer, Brighton Borough Council
1979: Assistant director, Town and Country Planning Association
1974: Senior planning officer, Department of the Environment
1972: Senior planning assistant Westminster City Council
1966: Planning assistant, Wilson and Womersley.

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