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Richard Blyth: 40 years on the swivel chair

Richard Blyth FRTPI is the RTPI’s Head of Policy, Practice and Research.

In early October 1982, I started the career I have been in ever since. I had a geography degree and I was initially signed up to do graduate conversion in Law, but I ended up converting that conversion into the planning conversion!

In those days a postgraduate planning course took 23 months – and it really did. I think I had 3 weeks off in 2 years. Rather a shock for the arts graduate to be expected to be in the “studio” 9-5 each weekday! And it really was a studio, with drawing boards, that weird filmy see-through paper, and drafting tape to stick your work on with. There were only five of us and all of us had a full grant and no fees – another difference from today. The postmaster general sent me a cheque for £600 each quarter – I had never seen so much money. My parents were very glad to see me self-supporting at last.

So much for the contrast with today’s planning education. But many things are either still with us or have come full circle. The obvious is “Zones”. Enterprise Zone had been announced the year before I started in planning, and they returned last month. Planning has been almost continually accused of holding the country back since 1980 by governments of both hues and stated to be in need of “supply-side reform”. None of these repeated reforms have really got to the nub of the issue though. What underlies these problems cuts across many government departments and probably most powerfully requires changes to taxation which would be very unpopular with a largish and vocal minority. 

What we didn’t have to deal with then was the climate crisis. I specialised in what was then called “climatic change” for my first degree. The narrative then was how we had emerged from the Little Ice Age and wasn’t that a good thing, we were told. Although the evidence was there to be found around warming, it seemed to get little attention. So, in 1982 planning wasn’t much about the natural environment really. The other thing it wasn’t about was the EU. That is, until the Environmental Impact Regulations 1988...

I was privileged to spend the years 1988 and 1989 working for the Government of the Gambia [blog post of Blast from the Past: The Gambia & I refers]. On my return to practice in England I was struck by a number of strange developments: firstly, that the European “community” as it was then had introduced a parallel planning process alongside our own, presumably because other member states weren’t as good at planning as us.

So, as you might expect with any retrospective, a lot is the same and a lot has changed.

Secondly, we created quangos: “English Nature” for example, which is an odd expression in grammatical terms, but the kind of thing we see a lot of these days. As a planner, I couldn’t get my head around this. Surely we had ecologists in the county council. Why did we need a quango for this? The question I wanted an answer to was not “here be Nature” but “how important is nature versus other considerations?”. We are still struggling with the fallout from that question as 100,000 homes are held up by “nutrient neutrality”.

Thirdly we got “planning policy guidance”. For the first time, it seemed to me that planners were learning PPG numbers and paragraphs off by heart. Where, I thought, is the room for professional discretion and local decision making? Again that debate rolls on with the possibility of “National Development Management Policies”.

Another thing very much in the news is digital planning. When I got to my first job they basically said “you’ve got a degree so you can do the computer”. A poisoned chalice I must say, and one which has permanently put me off them. As far as I am concerned a computer is for work, not life. However, it introduced me to flexitime (I was the only staff member who allowed it) and the delights of word processing. Having been a poor typist, what a treat to be able to rewrite what you write!

Looking back it does seem extraordinary that we went to Silicon Valley and literally hired someone to write us a development management system of our own. Why didn’t the Government lead on this? Would have saved so much hassle. Only now is the Government realising that the way you innovate is to lead. That is how GOV.UK and I-Player were created, and something we should have done for planning back in 1982.

So, as you might expect with any retrospective, a lot is the same and a lot has changed. The fundamentals of dealing with how to handle land value uplift, how to coordinate public and private investment, and how to fully involve people in decisions that affect them, all remain. And, unlike those who repeatedly call out the England planning system as somehow unique, these issues challenge the profession the world over.

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