To be a town planner at the present time must be a very frustrating job. All over the country groups of citizens are banding together to form amenity groups, neighbourhood councils or action groups, and most of them seem to spend a lot of time arguing with the local planning authority. Why is this? If I were a planner I would wonder why these people argue with the experts, why they wish to put forward views on planning matters when they have a group of trained planners to take the decisions. Perhaps it is because people are beginning to realise that the experts are only experts in a fairly narrow field of activity, which they believe makes up the whole of town planning and which other people realise does not!
At one time an architect used to consider himself an artist. He never had to design low-budget boxes for people to inhabit; that was the job of a draughtsman. Our planners never knew those days, they have not been brought up to consider personal taste and prejudices. They have been trained as scientists, who can provide a solution to a mathematical problem which involves housing units, housing gain, angles of light, open space ratios and other factors which can be dealt with by a computer. The result is that they are still feeling their way from one experimental policy to another at the expense of the residential guinea pigs under their control.
We had the high-rise block period. There is nothing wrong with high-rise blocks for certain types of people, but the planners poured family units into them without considering that they could become prisons for those who hate heights, for old people when the lift breaks down, for people who like gardens or who have to look after a crowd of small children. Nobody thought of consulting the people who were condemned to live in an environment alien to them.
Recently we have had the period of large-scale demolition, making pre-war slum clearance look very small-scale indeed, and the enforced depopulation of whole areas, wrapped in the technical phrase ‘decanting ‘, which brought blight and bankruptcy to thriving areas. We still do not know whether they will ever recover. It was only when the Dept. of the Environment, recognising rebellion amongst the populace, demanded an increase in house rehabilitation and an end to demolition that organised opposition finally provided embarrassed planners with the wasted effort and expense of rejected compulsory purchase orders. Give a planner a sharp pencil and a blank patch on the map and he will be happy designing a feasibility study. One wonders whether he ever gives a thought to the decanted population which provided him with the blank patch, or perhaps he stills his conscience with the thought that it is in their best interests.
At present we have a phase of blocking off roads, usually linked with the emotive description ‘rat runs’. Both local councils and the GLC, often against the advice of the police, as we have seen in Central London, have found an easy answer to the traffic problem. It is to force all traffic on to so few roads that it grinds to a halt.
The Streatham Society is constantly agitating for consultation, but after every dialogue with the Council, we feel that we are not talking the same language. The chairman of one Council Committee told me after a meeting: ‘The trouble is, you get annoyed if we do not do things your way.’ Well, we certainly get annoyed if we have the feeling that consultation is only being carried out to keep people quiet, instead of to obtain their views and try to incorporate them in future plans.
We define consultation as a three-stage process: (a) presenting the council’s plans to as wide a section of the local population as possible; (b) obtaining the reaction of the population; and (c) incorporating the wishes of the population as far as possible. Unfortunately, we seldom get past the first stage and there is always the feeling that the council planners consider that they know what is best for us and that we are only a nuisance if we object.
Planners too often decide from statistics and cadastral surveys what the area requires, instead of asking the people what they want. Town planning is not a science, it is a subjective study, influenced to a large extent by personal taste and party political dogma. Whether it is a good thing or not, the feeling of most urban residents seems to be ‘no change unless necessary’. Change for the sake of change is definitely out, and as an architect said to me recently: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that local government is running out of money!
Problems of Communication
We know the problems involved in contacting a large section of the population and local groups should be able to spread news of council plans and obtain reactions. It is, however, often difficult to find out what the Council’s plans are, especially if it has the sulks after losing a CPO application.
There seems also to be some suspicion amongst council officers that by using local groups they are only contacting the so-called ‘articulate minority’, but this is probably the only section of the population that the Council will succeed in contacting anyway. Our membership - or that of any other amenity society - may only run into hundreds, but through affiliated organisations we can approach several thousand people in each part of the Borough.
It is not an easy problem and despite my harsh words and perhaps unfair generalisations, I hope that there are still dedicated planners who aim to improve conditions. To them I say: ‘Be humble and remember that your job is to guide rather than to direct: in other words, to help people to help you to help them.’
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