Ordinary people are clueless about the faults of our planning system. We have to find a way to engage them, says Elizabeth Hopkirk

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“Every civilised country has a better planning system than we do, evidenced by the fact they have better modern buildings.”

So said the client on a new co-working space and nursery in Hackney. Rohan Silva’s remarks to BD were borne of frustration at the number of years it took to deliver his project, a colourful ETFE-wrapped refurbishment by Spanish architects Cano Lasso.

You might disagree with Silva, who obviously has an axe to grind, on some of the details. But no one would disagree that there are deep-rooted problems with our planning system and that we’d rather have someone else’s. LA’s gets his vote. Others might prefer Flanders’. But it was what he said next that’s most troubling.

“I worked in Treasury, Parliament and No.10 and I didn’t understand any of this until I left and [became a client]. Politicians don’t understand this. Unless you grapple with the system and are trying to do innovative things it’s only then you bump into it.”

Silva is a design native. He’s married to an architect, he was behind the government’s TechCity initiative and, while a senior policy advisor to David Cameron, he organised a conference in Number 10 on how to improve urban design – yes! – where the speakers included Richard Rogers, Bjarke Ingels, Thomas Heatherwick, David Saxby of Architecture 00:/ and Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab.

If a man as bright as Silva didn’t understand how unfit-for-purpose our planning system is until he left government it feels a bit hopeless. How are we going to create the public appetite for reform, short of perhaps trying to solve the housing crisis by forcing everyone to become a self-builder and thus a client?

Look at housing. Once the preserve of geeks, housing policy only became a serious election issue when the middle classes found their children couldn’t afford the first rung of a property ladder that previous generations had taken for granted. It was in the 2010 general election that “ordinary members of the public” started asking candidates what they were going to do about the housing crisis. There is a direct link between that public pressure and the government’s (still inadequate) action.

Similarly, climate change has moved from special interest subject to the mainstream – where in June we saw 1,000 doctors writing to a newspaper demanding action, architects declaring a climate emergency and “ordinary members of the public” taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests.

What will it take for planning to get to the same place on the public’s agenda? It might not be as obviously life-threatening as climate change but it’s actually one of the solutions: a properly resourced planning system is essential if our towns and cities are to be truly sustainable.

Yes, we need our professional institutions like RIBA and the RTPI to keep lobbying politicians and policymakers behind the scenes.

But to get the public writing letters to their MPs demanding bigger budgets for planning departments we need a planning celebrity to bang the drum. We need a Kevin McCloud or Tom Dyckhoff who can simplify the issues – some of which are mind-numbingly dull and complex for all but those geeks – and popularise the cause.

What about a TV series on Great Places explaining why King’s Cross, Lochgelly, Cambridge and almost every town in Holland work. And a spin-off show called Crap Places, which might get better ratings.

There are plenty of talented young planners, architects and urbanists out there who could front this, with Finn Williams and Pooja Agrawal of Public Practice only the most obvious.

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>> Also read: Why North West Cambridge is a model for building on the green belt


Other things that could help would be to give the Stirling Prize to Aecom for the Eddington masterplan in North West Cambridge which would create the opportunity for pundits to discuss place-making in the mainstream media. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Stanton Williams’ landscape-led rental housing in particular. 

We also need to teach this stuff in schools, as I’ve said before and will keep saying until it happens.

With initiatives like these, it might not be too long before we have someone inside Number 10 organising a conference on how to improve the planning system. And actually reading the reports they commission from people like Oliver Letwin.

>> Also read: David Rudlin: Letwin’s report could change everything