Lessons for English Planning: Ahab Meets a Fire Breathing Dragon
This blog is based on a talk I gave to the Planning and Development Association Meeting University of Birmingham 19th October 2012.
As this government embarks on a series of further ad-hoc iterations and changes to planning policy it is timely to present two simple stories that together offer an important critique for the way planning is currently carried out and the way that uncertainty is becoming the real enemy of enterprise.
The first story is adapted from the Bible Kings Chapter 1 v21
King Ahab wanted to increase the area under vegetable cultivation and eyed with envy the productive vineyard that Naboth owned. It was fertile and productive land and just the job for increasing his land production. He therefore asked Naboth if he was willing to sell it to him or do a swap with some other land elsewhere.
Naboth refused saying he couldn't give what was his fathers inheritance to him. It wasn't his to give or trade over.
King Ahab was annoyed and told his wife Jezebel a selective account about Naboth's refusal. She hatched a cunning plan in response that meant that Ahab could get the vineyard for free. Two people would accuse Naboth of blasphemy. And so it came to pass and Naboth was then stoned to death. 'God' was extremely annoyed about this deceit and treachery and confronted Ahab who was belatedly very remorseful. Consequently a curse was bestowed on all Ahabs and Jezebels offspring for their deceit and treachery meaning that they would die under horrible plagues and illnesses.
The second story is about a fire breathing dragon. A respected and retired elder walked round his town every day thinking about how the current problems of decline, deprivation and unemployment could be solved. He did this as part of a daily routine for many years. One day as he was walking he had an 'eureka' moment that all the town's problems could be solved by a fire breathing dragon. He immediately rushed back to tell the council and citizens. Given the high esteem he was held in everyone believed him and they all started celebrating because he had found the answer to their problems.
A few weeks later when he was on his regualr walk the fire breathing dragon suddenly came and when the man saw it he had a heart attack due to fright and the fire breathing dragon breathed fire and burnt the town to the ground. So in a sense he was right; all the problems were solved.
So what lessons does this provide for those involved in development and execution of contemporary planning policy?
The first story reminds us to be wary of unscrupulous developers and to not always believe everything they say. The case yesterday of Tripping up Trump provides a very useful parallel here with the need for careful scrutiny of their arguments. Equally beware of a smart developers wife as revealed by Jezebel's cunning plan to secure the vineyard for free (if I may posit a small sexist joke here)!
Beware using the financial lens as the sole measure of value. People have different values that need unpacking with implications for success of policy and decision making measures. Understanding different and such shared values which override simple economic arguments is currently not well understood. Naboth's values towards land were not really well respected in the story!
Beware of the long term implications of actions made for immediate short term gain. Think of the long term implications well beyond your lifetime. Ahab had real legacy issues of an intergenerational nature based on his greed!
The fire breathing dragon story offers these invaluable lessons.
Do not trust so called experts, particularly academics to come up with answers. They rarely have the answer; though many like to think they have. It has to be a collaborative venture with 'experts' both local and national working together not in opposition.
Develop a clear vision of where you want to go with policy. If you lack a vision you are merely reacting to changing circumstances and, in some circumstances, it may be too late. The town where the fire breathing dragon wreaked havoc is a case in point.
Mobilise people to actively support a given vision/plan as they will ultimately experience and benefit from it. Imposed plans or visions alientate publics. The lack of an effective community response meant that reliance on experts was embedded into the culture and doomed to failure.
Incorporate innovative and risky ideas into existing decision making processes even if they don't fit existing guidelines . Look at the benefits and dis-benefits then decide whether to go ahead. The fire breathing dragon might have a lot of health and safety issues to overcome but if planned for could have been a major tourism attraction or perhaps a weapon of mass destruction or a contribution to scientific/medical discovery. The lack of action planning meant it was none of these.
So, in conclusion, looking at the contemporary planning situation as delivered by the present coalition government I offer the following observations.
1 Whilst growth is the core objective of government we do not know what success looks like as there is no spatial vision. We are the only country without such a vision. This lack of vision means that government U turns are evident which collectively creates huge uncertainty in decision making. This is the real enemy of enterprise. For example, the Growth and Infrastructure Bill published last Friday shows a seismic shift from Greg Clarke's previous mantra of "localism localism localism" to Nick Boles's mantra of "centralism centralism centralism". To me this signals that the government did not think through the full implications of what localism might mean and, in particular, how it wasn't leading to the 'right' kind of localism they wanted. So now they are doing this through increased centralism. Such changes merely alienate publics and cause further loss of trust with huge implications for the future effectiveness of policy measures.
2. Announcements and attacks by George Osborne and David Cameron on the planning system and the environmental 'Taliban' as the enemies of enterprise fail to recognise the value and benefits of community and environment as core ingredients of economic development. The government obsession on economic indicators alone means that government tend to only value what can be measured (eg GDP) as opposed to measuring what people actually value (quality of life and happiness). This leads to disintegrated policy as each area of policy is subjugated by the primacy of short term economic growth such as the recent 8m conservatory extensions!
3. There is a need for decision makers to be less risk averse and respect the risk takers. So planners and councillors do need to move out of their quest for spatial order which may inhibit creative ideas becoming reality. My work on the urban rural fringe highlights the way these 'edge' spaces can be seedbeds of real change and innovation in what are messy spaces. The use of section 106 agreements could be used to help shape more adaptive and experimental projects which offer valuable learning experiences under temporary planning permissions.
The final food for thought is that we urgently need to change the way we think about progress and development. We need bold new visions to help us move together to develop the kind of England we all want. THat does not appear to be on the government agenda.