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Planning Theory And Practice Social Policy Essay

To say I was originally enthusiastic about the commencement of studying planning theory would be an exaggeration. I had come back into my studies having just completed a placement year in the public sector feeling that I had experienced a more relevant account of planning issues than I would be able to gain knowledge of from studying reading material on theory. I took the attitude that the placement year presented far more real and therefore pertinent experiences than the commentary of the authors, whom I saw as being on the outside of practice.

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In honesty, this opinion persevered in the early weeks of the module. I struggled through the transition of starting challenging theory based work again after a year of what had become routine duties on placement. I was anxious at the prospect of tackling theoretical reflections having initially read Archibugi’s (2008) suggestion that a ‘creeping uneasiness has pervaded all the participants of this discipline’. Yet, as the course progressed I became satisfied by how my understanding of many of the themes and individual topics developed, through both lectures and group based seminars. I have found that the discussions during these sessions have ultimately called into question much of the knowledge and preconceptions of planning that I had laid down as part of the cornerstone of my practical experience during my placement year.

My understanding of many of the themes that were introduced was rather limited during the introductory lectures. So whilst attempting to develop a mechanism to strengthen my understanding, I found it of sense to explore themes that I could emphasise with from my time in practice. I have found that because of my prior experience regarding the public interest, and that I consider this to be a key idea of planning, I have afforded this more time and my conceptions of the topic have developed significantly. The same can be said of the theme of objectives and the topics of conservation, preservation and heritage. It is these two themes and how my personal understanding of each has developed that shall explore in more depth.

Key Ideas: The Public Interest

Throughout my experience of working for a local planning authority, I was very much made to be aware that serving in the public sector means serving in the public interest. I was conscious of the public interest as well known idea that planning should arguably be built upon, and this notion was forced upon me from my very first day on placement. When arriving at Council offices, the sign above the building read: ‘working together for the greater good of the public need’ and this message was pressed into me throughout my induction to the authority.

As planning is a public service, planning officers in the local authority’s of Britain are duty bound to include the public in the various stages of the system. Whilst working in my placement within enforcement and development control I was well informed of this. I was often thrown in at the deep end, frequently dealing with breaches of planning legislation and having to consider whether it was expedient to pursue a remedy to a matter with regard to not only planning legislation but the public interest as well.

Later in the year whilst having the opportunity to assist in the production of the local development plan, I was informed that one of the goals of the department in creating the document was for it to be prepared incorporating an increased level of public participation. Acting as a spokesperson of the development plan team at public consultations and hearing many of the residents’ concerns and representations with regard to the plan, I was certainly aware of the difficulties and delicate nature of trying to work towards a public interest.

The situations that I encountered particularly during the public consultation exhibitions resonated with me whilst reading around the theme for this module. Many members of the public attending the meetings were unhappy at some of the proposals included in the development plan. It is widely accepted in practice and theory that the planning system has held a central objective of operating towards the interest of the public ever since the production of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (Campbell and Marshall, 2002). However, it is clear to me from such experiences that it cannot always achieve this goal.

The work of Campbell and Marshall (2002) was the first piece of literature I was introduced to for a seminar on the concept of the public interest. I noted that Campbell and Marshall were able to distinguish various approaches to the public interest by classifying them into different groups, such as unitary public interest and ultitairianism. Yet, to me this begged the question as to whether this theory of classification allowed planners to treat the subject superficially. Acting in, for example, the unitary public interest, in my interpretation, is considering the public as a whole and as one stakeholder, this rather than on an individual basis or considering the interests of a wider society. Therefore, is this not in essence defeating the very motives of a public interest?

In reflecting upon the literature in a greater depth, I ultimately began to appreciate the troubles in defining a standard public interest. I considered that the piece may have been introduced to reflect the point that I may not be able to find a single definition at all, with it argued that;

‘Given the deep divisions of interest in society, the persistence of disagreement and the prevalence of discord and conflict it seems unlikely that a consensus can be constructed’ (Campbell and Marshall 2002).

Given this, one could suggest that as there are deep divisions in society, it may be impossible for the public interest to consider everyone and consequently it may ignore the interests of different groups. To this end, perhaps the theory of establishing different categories of the public interest that Campbell and Marshall (2002) promoted, is a practical solution to include different groups? Through this initial piece I had determined several issues of significance that I was keen to investigate further to broaden my understanding of the concept of the public interest.

From readings later in the semester, I was given the platform to discuss the aspect of different groups and divisions that Campbell and Marshall (2002) had before mentioned. It quickly became more apparent to me that the interests of different minority groups clearly weren’t being represented in the ‘public interest’ and in the current planning system. I found relevance by reading the work of Peach and Gale (2003) who speak of the public interest in a present day context, with the argument that ethnic minorities and certain religious structures are not represented justly. The planning system is supposed to act towards a public good, but how can this be said of a system that does not adequately represent minority groups who account for an ever increasing part of society.

It became evident whilst analysing the work of Peach and Gale (2003) that the public interest that the British planning system is geared towards is the largely ‘traditional’, white, middle class contingent of society. This was perhaps true of the context of not only my placement, but the wider area of where I studied and was brought up in, with the system arguably not representing the different elements of society as a whole. I wanted to find examples of this to relate to and was stunned by the vast amount of news stories concerning minority groups protesting the way in which their planning applications had been handled and often rejected either by planning officers or Councillors (Planning Resource, 2003).

It has become clear to me throughout the module, that although Britain is not particularly representative of minority groups in the public interest, its European neighbours could positively take lessons from our system in terms of adopting policy to allow for difference. Peach and Gale (2003) here propose that countries including Italy and Spain are stuck in a state of denial and resistance in the interaction between minority faith groups and the planning process.

In addition, the recent referendum decision of the Swiss to ban the building of minarets emphasises a feeling of denial across much of Europe to consider difference in the public interest. These nations notably take a different and far more extreme stance on the matter than Britain. Although Islam is the most widespread religion after Christianity in Switzerland, it remains relatively hidden with prayer rooms and planning applications for new minarets usually refused even prior to the new legislation being passed (BBC News, 2009). I was surprised to read of such difficulties in these European countries. I had always considered Britain to be considerably less accepting of difference in not only its planning system but society in general.

Although I have discovered that Britain’s system may appear comparably stronger than its European equivalents in this sense, I still perceive the planning system in Britain as a conservative and restrictive one. It would seem that the current system in this respect is arguably outdated. Many decisions still ignorantly reflect the ideals portrayed in elements of Sharp’s (1945) work of the ‘traditional’ British town environment. Although certain local authorities in Britain are beginning to embrace and celebrate change, such as in Birmingham City Council, I am still aware that applications are generally refused for new religious buildings as Peach and Gale (2003) have presented.

Davidoff (2003, cited in Miles, 2008) suggests that only the opinions of the powerful are heard, and ultimately the needs of different groups and the poor are ignored in the planning process. He argued that planners should represent the views of different communities proposing to work directly with a variety of groups to consider planning in a multi ethnic society in the form of advocacy planning (Miles 2008). It was considered from discussions from my peers that these arguments are now renowned as a front runner, and I emphasise with many of the principals that are promoted. I agree that the planning system should strive to consider society in its entirety as the public interest, and empower different voices. However, I am also very aware from not only my time in practice, but the literature, that the application of such theories behind these ideas is not always realistic or achievable.

Prior to this module, and throughout what I studied in my placement year, I was accepting of the argument that the public interest is a key idea of significance, and should remain the pivot around which the purpose of planning should turn (Campbell and Marshall 2002). Although I still agree with this, I have found it hard to acknowledge that the public interest may ultimately neglect many different groups in society. My idealistic and, in reflection, naive concept of the public interest that I enjoyed working toward whilst on placement has been transformed.

Ultimately I now perceive the public interest to be a key idea of much complexion, and agree with Forester (1999, as cited in Campbell and Marshall, 2002) that the idea that it can be defined and known should be cast as a chimera.

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I recognise the words of Friedmann (2003) who suggests that planning needs to be brought into line with what is happening in a ‘dramatically changing world of globalisation, multiculturalism and post modernity’. This is crucial to ensure that society as a whole is represented in the planning system. Otherwise, it cannot be said that the process is functioning to a public good.

Planning Objectives: Conservation, Preservation and Heritage

During my placement year I was given the opportunity to work in the Conservation section of the planning department. Throughout my time in the division I helped review elements of listed buildings and acted as a communicative link between Development Control, reporting unauthorised works on these listings for investigation. I used this experience later when returning to Enforcement Planning, to issue a Listed Building Enforcement Notice for unauthorised works.

My time in the department was brief and busy. One consequence of this was that I was not allowed sufficient scope to familiarise myself with much of the department’s background or how and why listings are made. I was therefore eager to build upon these limited experiences by exploring these objectives in more depth. I thought it of use to commence this process by examining the differentiations between the three issues and found by reading Larkham’s (1999, cited in Cullingworth, 1999) interpretation that:

“Preservation tends to be the older concept and implies retention without significant change…Conservation is very much a twentieth century usage, implies a need for change but awareness that change should be directed in order to retain key valued elements…Heritage has come to imply the process of evaluation, selection and interpretation of things in the past.”

I had preconceptions prior to the relevant lectures of what type of environment may constitute ‘heritage’. Yet, my views were only galvanised through the knowledge I had acquired from the above definitions and lecture materials. These continue to be mainly traditional and stereotypical, that of stately homes, images of monuments and aspects of national parks. I appreciate that particular features of the built environment have to be protected, so the history of the area can be ‘conserved’ for future generations to enjoy and learn from. For example, it became obvious whilst on placement that the department aimed to protect pieces of the former industrial mining culture that dominated the area as these are seen to be representative of the region’s history. Parts of collieries and examples of via-ducts had therefore been protected for social and aesthetic reasons.

However, I soon realised the additional requirement for buildings and areas to be protected in more of a national interest to potentially enhance the economy. It is therefore perhaps in the interest of not only the region but the nation as a whole to prevent change to Welsh icons such as elements of the coal industry. Features such as this take the form of an image of national heritage and history, and can be presented as a type of tourist attraction much to the benefit of the economy.

Although I can relate to these reasons for buildings being listed, whilst working in industry I was at times surprised that certain types of buildings had been given protection and others not. From reading Larkham (1996) later in the semester, I considered the issues that may arise if there are inconsistent views between those influencing decisions regarding such development in an area and those living in, or affected by the area. On placement, I was told stories of frequent problems in the department, with different stakeholders having different opinions and then at times when buildings ear marked for protection or change did not meet the approval of the population who use the area. From this I went on to realise that the reasons for designation of certain buildings for protection are sometimes misunderstood and unclear. It is argued in Cullingworth (1999) that:

“…one of the problems with the listing system over time has been the secrecy in which it has operated…no reasons were given for listings or refusal to list, and there is no appeal.’

The passage goes on to describe the controversy of post 1945 listings. I was shocked to learn that the Secretary of State for the Environment of the then Conservative government listed only 18 of the 70 buildings suggested by English Heritage in 1987 (Cullingworth, 1999). From this I reflected that the objectives of individuals, and in this instance political influence, can greatly affect the system and I was able to relate to more localised examples of this that I had seen in practice.

‘The Planning (Listed Buildings Conservation Areas) Act 1990’ has gone some way to dispel many of the arguments regarding mystery and secrecy. I was interested to learn how current Heritage institutions operate in promoting transparency in decision making. One suggestion, as presented by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC, 2007) is to instigate a wider public involvement, thus creating a more representative arrangement. It is argued in the Heritage White Paper (IHBC, 2007) that incorporating the heritage system in the planning process to a greater degree, will help to avoid elements of uncertainty in the system. One of the aims of a new structure would be to;

“…provide an accessible system to the public for managing the designation process, balancing responsiveness, transparency, accountability and control” (IHBC, 2007).

I agree that an element of transparency is required for an arrangement such as the heritage or listing process to function effectively. As I continued to read the pertinent literature, I was taken by the initial contrasting stance of Miles (2008), who states that, ‘planners as professional public servants will often make disinterested judgements in the interest of the public’. It has become evident in reflecting on my discussions with my peers, that the individual objectives, opinions and thoughts of planners will affect the decisions that they make within the planning system. Historically I have found, through studying the literature, that this can be the case when determining what is required to be ‘listed’. Therefore, I cannot accept the before mentioned theory of Miles (2008). I would argue from my experience that it is only natural for the planner to make ‘interested judgements’ based upon the principals and objectives that he is familiar with.

I have always been of the opinion that the great strength of the British Planning System is its allowance for an element of discretion and flexibility. However, in reflecting on what I have found here, and upon the work of Booth (1996) that I read earlier in the semester, I accept that it is this very strength that can also be its weakness. It is evident that it is the values influencing planners, perhaps encouraged by this flexibility, which may ultimately affect the decisions that they make. Forester (1999, cited in Campbell and Marshall 2002) puts forward a case for this argument by suggesting that ‘ethical judgements are at the very centre of much day-to-day work of practitioners’. I have learnt that there are a variety of reasons for why different buildings and aspects of the built environment should be protected. Despite this, I have realised that it is unrealistic to suggest that these decisions will not always be influenced by the personal objectives of individuals.


I commenced the module reflecting on my hesitance of the significance that theorists can pose to the practical side of planning. However, I realised that my practical experiences are obviously not reflective of planning as a whole and it has been a useful exercise to reflect upon the lessons that I learnt in practice. My prior consideration of the public interest has been considerably altered by studying the literature of different theorists. I have been able to build upon my limited knowledge of three objectives that planners may encounter in practice by discussing the theoretical background of the topics.

I remain unsure if many of the theories and ideals that I have encountered in the module can realistically be transferred into the various day to day duties of planning departments. However, I acknowledge that planners can take benefit from studying planning theory and my understanding of not only these two themes but practice and theory generally has undoubtedly developed throughout the module. Friedmann (2003) suggests that studying theory is essential to the vitality and continued relevance of the profession, and in reflecting as an aspiring practitioner, I can ultimately support this opinion.


  • Archibugi, F. (2007) Planning theory: from the political debate to the methodological reconstruction. Milan : Springer Verlag
  • Booth, P. (1996) Controlling Development, chapter 6 (‘Flexibility, discretion and accountability’) London, UCL Press
  • Campbell, H. and Marshall, R. (2002) ‘Utilitarianism’s bad breath? A re-evaluation of the public interest justification for planning. Planning Theory 1(2): 163-187.
  • Friedmann, J. (2003) ‘Why do Planning Theory?’ Planning Theory 2(1): 7-10.
  • Institute of Historic Building Conservation (2007), The Heritage White Paper, IHBC Members Consultation.
  • Larkham, P. (1996) Conservation and the City. London: Routeledge.
  • Larkham, P (1999) ‘Preservation, conservation and heritage: developing concepts and applications’, in Cullingworth, B. (eds) British Planning: 50 years of urban and regional policy, Athlone Press
  • Miles, M. (2008) ‘Planning and Conflict’, in Hall, T., Hubbard, P. And Short, J.R. (eds) The Sage Companion to the City. London Sage: 318-333
  • Peach, C. and Gale, R. (2005) ‘Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the new religious landscape of England’. The Geographical Review 93(4): 469-490.
  • Sharp, T. (1945) Town Planning Revised edition. Harmondsworth, Penguin: 12-76

Website Links

  • BBC News. (2009) ‘Switzerland votes on minarets ban’, BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8384835.stm. (Accessed 04/12/2009) Planning Resource. (2003)’ Islamic group protests after mosque snub’
  • Planning Resource. http://www.planningresource.co.uk/news/414467. (Accessed 03/12/2009)

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