Thursday, 12 April 2012

Planning in a short-term world

Working as a long-range planner I am no stranger to the roadblocks caused by other people or agencies adopting a more short-term approach.  This is not to say that a healthy tension is created between differing attitudes, but it can often feel as though the commitment to long-term planning can suddenly be shelved for short-term benefit.  Often this is found when planning locks horns with political strategy and no better example can be found than a few weeks back when the Premier of British Columbia rejected the local Mayor's calls for a new tax to pay for transit improvements (see here).  With a by-election to win and a Provincial election around the corner, the Premier does not want to be associated with any new tax rises, whatever the long-term benefits they may obviously bring.  So it was with relief that I read Chris Shepley's thoughtful article in a  recent UK planning magazine on the vital role of long-term strategy.  

Taken from Planning magazine, 27 January 2012:

I've been thinking about strategy. The National Planning Policy Framework is not, and was apparently not intended to be, a strategy for England's future. Despite persuasive cases for a national planning framework, especially from the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Town and Country Planning Association, the idea has been rejected as "too hard". 
Or maybe too slow, as it would need a strategic environmental assessment. Or maybe too embarrassing, as it might show gaps in government thinking over the past 30 years. Meanwhile, regional strategies have been replaced by the open-eyed hopefulness of the duty to cooperate. But I think that there's a more prevalent problem here. Planners are long-term thinkers in a short-term world.
Most businesses, for example, do not think strategically, being preoccupied with shareholder value and short-term results. Much of the media seems not to look beyond the inanities of Prime Minister's questions. Our approach to the EU has been characterised by calculating short-term benefits and drawbacks. Education and health are typified by hasty fixes rather than persistent hard work. 
Energy policy has suffered from short-termism to the point where there are worries about supply. Investment and research into renewables has not been coordinated; we could have been world leaders given a bit of effort over the decades.
And I hardly need mention the lack of a proper vision for transport, or dwell on the imbalances between different parts of the country - or people's surprise that the South East has become overcrowded and expensive. 
Our painful experience and painstaking strategic effort as planners has been marginalised in the face of this apparent inability to think more than five minutes ahead. We know quite a lot about the long-term options for eff- iciently enabling this great nation to accommodate itself, but it seems to be constantly forgotten and relearned.
Planners have researched and written about town centres' role and future only to be told by a TV "expert" what we already know. We have strong ideas about housing provision but these are overtaken by crackpot notions such as no longer requiring permission for residential conversion of offices - a short-term fix with many potential unintended consequences. Well done Alex Morton for admitting to dreaming this up. We have spent years trying to foster economic growth in areas where it is desperately needed. The regeneration of places like Salford Quays takes decades, not gimmicks. Everyone accepts our expertise in the protection of the countryside and the environment, even if the chancellor regards these as an unnecessary luxury. All of us know that these things are interconnected and need stable and steadfast thought and effort, not short-term bodges. I've been thinking about strategy. Have I been wasting my time?

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