The state can play a positive role in the design of our cities, says Lee Mallett

We may not like some aspects of the planning system, but like the rule of law, it is a powerful mediator between some of the forces that shape society.

We use it to negotiate the future. If you read the documents that planners produce, most of our aspirations are in there. They focus on equality of opportunity through renewal and growth and protecting the environment, historic and natural.

Yet this social utility has also confined planning’s usefulness. You can’t please everyone, and sometimes design ideas don’t work in reality. As a result, planning has been shorn of creativity and the “visioning” is now done largely by the private sector, with varying effect.

Matthew Carmona of the Bartlett School of Planning is to talk about this in a public lecture in February, which could open a deeper discussion.

His preamble says: “The desire for the state to have a role in how places are shaped… remains popular, and largely universal. So can the public sector legitimately influence design for the better?” Carmona intends to “make the case for legitimate design governance”.

Ask senior planners about the power of propositional planning and few will lament the passing of the local plan. They aren’t keen on the idea that planners should design place. Instead, there are symbols and zones of “growth corridors” and “opportunity areas”. Rarely seen are detailed visions of place that we can all understand.

But there is a counter-culture emerging among architects, urbanists and urban designers dismayed by design’s absence as a tool in British planning.

Private clients are paying to get the impact of their proposals on the public realm right. While this might not be regarded as “planning”, the work of Publica in London demonstrates how vital a tool design and close observation is in planning the city.

But any attempts to re-introduce “visioning” into planning have not been taken up by the system as a modus operandi.

Is this because it is too political to draw what is to become of an area? Do politicians resent its infringement on their turf? Or is it simply because planning was one thing once and now it’s become something else, and we need to rediscover the power of design when we plan?