The reign of cynicism in planning

Is it just me, or is cynicism cool?  I was at a lecture last night on evidence-based policy at University College London. There were some brilliant panellists talking about the role of evidence in forming and shaping policy. Unfortunately, they were also pointing out that politicians and civil servants often selectively ignore the evidence because of pressure from the media, opposition or the fear that a particular piece of evidence isn’t certain enough.  

The tag line for this event was great: “Policymakers ignore the evidence. Academics ignore the politics. Then the public ignores them both.”  Essentially, this sums up the message that I got from the event. Academic evidence is ignored by the real world and there’s not a heck of a lot you can do about it.

One of the panellists was Prof. Mark Tewdwr-Jones of the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. Mark told a story of how his colleague, Prof. Sir Peter Hall, dreamt up enterprise zones in the 1980s as a joke. They were implemented nationally and had the unfortunate consequence of drawing retail out of town centres. This caused a policy shift toward redeveloping retail in town centres. Now the Coalition government has reinvigorated enterprise zones. It looks like there is evidence that they don’t work. But it’s being ignored. This was all said in that familiar tone that this is the same old story.

Then today I was at a meeting with some very experienced and senior planning professionals.  I mentioned the questions that have risen on Twitter and elsewhere about neighbourhood plans being hijacked for councils’ pet projects rather than actually being community-led. This was met with the response that planning is rife with cynicism. And this is one of the problems we have to get past.

What I’ve noticed during my limited experience in the UK planning world, is that cynicism is met with knowing nods whilst optimism is laughed away as naivety. “You’ll learn about how it really works when you get older” sort of thing.  I’m finding this incredibly frustrating. 

I’d like to think of myself as a cynical optimist. I hope that politicians and organisations will be able to prioritise the long-term wellbeing of our society over re-election or making a quick buck. But I fear that this isn’t the case. And this fear seems justified when I hear stories like Mark’s. 

I wish that my colleagues in the planning world would put away their cynicism and just accept our democratic political system for what it is.  It’s not perfect, and we can try to improve it, but for now it’s what we’ve got.

Politicians and civil servants, especially those involved in planning, are dealing with competing objectives and political survival on a daily basis. It’s tough. But I would like to think that many of them got into public service because they care about people and they want to make improvements in their community. My point is, surrendering to the idea that we’re all screwed and there’s no point in trying is the easy way out and it’s not cool!

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