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A child of its time: the early years of Planning Aid

Kelvin MacDonald is a Senior Departmental Fellow at the Department of Land Economy, Cambridge and the Specialist Adviser on planning to the House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee. He was previously an Examiner Inspector with the Planning Inspectorate and Chief Policy Adviser to the RTPI. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of the RTPI.

The prisoner of Marsham Towers

In 1979 I wrote to the great David Hall, then Director of the Town a Country Planning Association (TCPA), asking him to rescue me from my life as a civil servant. 

I had been working in the then Department of the Environment for five years and had realised that a career in Marsham Street was not for me (probably at about the same time that the DoE realised that about me).

The reason why I wrote to the TCPA was because it seemed to believe in an approach to planning that was not based on whether a precise wording of structure plan policies was acceptable but in one that started with people.

(Kelvin pictured in 1979, the year he wrote to TCPA Director David Hall)

Planning Aid

This was epitomised to me by the fact that six years before I wrote my plea, the TCPA had started a Planning Aid Unit under the leadership of a young planner named David Lock.

Now, in 2023, we are celebrating the 50th birthday of the founding of Planning Aid – a service built on the principle that everyone should have access to the planning system regardless of their ability to pay, and for the purpose of empowering people to effectively engage with the planning process. 

Radical and Fundamental

To me, Planning Aid was, and still is, such a radical and fundamental idea - almost turning the idea of the relationship between the professional and the client on its head with volunteers and professionals giving free advice to communities and individuals.  

It is to the eternal credit of the TCPA that it took this step and to the eternal credit of the RTPI not only that its professional members embraced and took on this concept but that one of the very first public calls for such a service came from an RTPI President, Jim Amos, then the City Planning Officer of Liverpool, in his Presidential address in 1971.

A child of its time

Planning Aid was an idea whose time had come.  When the TCPA started talking in 1969 about transferring the concept of legal aid to planning, it was only four years after Paul Davidoff had published his call for a form of planning that he had called advocacy planning and only eight years since Jane Jacobs had challenged the shibboleths of planning in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Much nearer to home, the report of the Committee on Public Participation in Planning chaired by Arthur Skeffington MP was published in 1969.  The TCPA itself had already pushed the boundaries of thinking about the strengths and need of communities in planning their own places by setting up the Environmental Education Unit led by the anarchist thinker, educator and writer Colin Ward – whose 1978 book The Child in the City opened up a new view of power in the city.

Participation and Education

I can’t help reflecting that one of the lessons from this heady period half a century ago is that we have forgotten - or failed to learn - how public participation must go hand-in-hand with education with all those involved sharing their knowledge, sense and experience.

This initial RTPI blog celebrating 50 years of Planning Aid services is itself the start of a year of celebration, of reflection on lessons and of looking forward to how this radical practice may progress in the future.

Planning aid itself has taken many leaps forward and suffered a number of set backs and has innumerable stories to tell.  Other bloggers will do these justice over the coming year and beyond.  Today however, I am pleased to advise readers that planning aid services operate across the Britain via Planning Aid England, Planning Aid for London, PAS (Planning Aid Scotland), and Planning Aid Wales. Community Places  provides a similar service in Northern Ireland.

But finally, what happened to my plea to David Hall 44 years ago to spring me my from confinement in Marsham Towers?  Amazingly, David Hall wrote back and asked me to come in for a job interview – and my career changed for ever – including joining the staff of the RTPI over 20 years ago with responsibility, amongst other things, for Planning Aid.

Find out about Planning Aid England services. 

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