Archive for the 'Social Geography and Urban Studies' Category

The political economy of ‘a country called Europe’

SPERI_logo_300Policy Press author Dimitris Ballas recently published a blog on the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute blog, speri.comment, about ‘The political economy of ‘a country called Europe’ in which he suggests that new mapping techniques open up the possibility of  more informed policy-making and a greater sense of solidarity across Europe . We enjoyed it so much we thought you might like to read it too…

dimitris_ballasCan Europe be seen as one country? Or at least as an emerging ‘entity of identity’ made up of a growing number of smaller countries and regions? To what extent, in other words, can we start talking about the political economy of ‘a country called Europe’?

After several years of severe economic crisis and austerity measures that have disproportionately and brutally hit the most disadvantaged citizens across the continent, accompanied by a rise of extremist far right and populist parties, it may seem that a positive answer to these questions might be very unlikely.

Yet, despite the negative climate and the political scapegoating of the European Union in some of the countries most hit by the crisis and austerity measures, the fact is that, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, ‘most people are optimistic about the future of the EU in nearly all member states’ and, remarkably, ‘close to two-thirds of Europeans feel that they are citizens of the EU’. This seems to be particularly the case amongst the rapidly increasing numbers of Europeans who live, study and work in a member-state other than their country of birth.

There is undoubtedly a need for reform of the European Union and there are currently very important debates taking place regarding governance, democratic accountability and social cohesion, building on the remarkable achievements of the past seven decades. A notable example is a recently proposed manifesto for a euro political union, calling for ‘less Europe on issues on which member countries do very well on their own, and more Europe when union is essential’.

One novel way of contributing to these debates and of highlighting the benefits of policy-making at the European level is to consider European economy, culture, history and its human and physical geography as a single, large, land and population mass. This is the approach taken by myself and my fellow European geographers Danny Dorling and Benjamin Hennig in our recently published Social Atlas of Europe.

Our project highlights the notion of Europe as a single entity by looking at its physical and population geography simultaneously, using state-of-the-art Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and new human cartography techniques that build on recent award-winning research and innovative Worldmapping applications. The material and maps presented in our new atlas can then be used to inform evidence-based debates about policy-making at the European level.

I illustrate this here with a simple example taken from the Health chapter of the book, showing the relevance of our mapping to current debates about the political economy of Europe.

This is a map known as a Hennig Projection Gridded Cartogram, with the area drawn scaled proportionally to population but shaded by the total numbers of practising physicians per 100,000 population in each region (more information on the types of maps and the data and methods can be found in the introductory chapter and amongst other material available via the book’s accompanying web-site). It is worth noting that amongst the regions with the higher numbers we see countries heavily affected by recession and austerity, including Greece (which also the highest number of doctors per capita in Europe).

The map shown here can be used to inform debates regarding the planning of health services at the European level. For example, it enables us to understand better inequalities in health service provision across European regions and countries; at the same time, it allows us to make a case for a pan-European Health System which could involve the co-ordination of efforts and funding at the European level to arrange treatment and routine operations in countries and regions that have surplus medical staff. It’s easy to see that this could have great benefits for the populations in countries with longer hospital waiting lists and at the same time support the local and national economies of those areas affected most by the crisis.

Another policy-relevant debate that can be informed by the use of the ‘data geovisualisation’ presented here is that surrounding highly skilled migration and ‘brain drain’ in Europe at times of crisis. In particular, it is interesting to note that highly qualified professionals (including medical staff) in the regions hit the hardest by the recession and massive government cuts have been migrating over the past five years to regions with lower unemployment, mostly in the north and in countries like Germany. It can be argued that such movements of population not only help some regions and countries overcome their skill shortages, but that they also further contribute to the formation and bolstering of European identity, both in the receiving countries as well as in the minds of the migrating population.

On the other hand, these movements can be seen as a brain-drain for the originating regions with further negative economic and social implications. In any case, it is very important to point out that the cost of educating highly qualified professionals like doctors was typically not covered by the receiving country, but rather by the tax-payers of those sending countries, like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which made huge investments in their higher education systems in past decades. This is worth remembering when considering European solidarity! The point is simple but important: the investments in higher education (including medical schools) made by these countries in the past decades (and which have contributed to their high overall levels of government debt) are now benefiting the European Union as a whole via the migration of these highly skilled groups of individuals.

Indeed, there are many more examples of variables and themes that can be used to illustrate how mapping and conceptualising Europe as one place can inform relevant policy debates. Other examples might include migration, regional populations by age, unemployment, hospital beds and EU Spending.

Finally, in addition to the enrichment of the evidence base available to inform urban, regional, national and European policy simultaneously, we can plausibly hope that these new maps and cartograms of Europe may also enhance a sense of common identity, solidarity and belonging. By such means, perhaps we can slowly move away from a ‘nation-state mentality’ and towards the idea of Europe as a country united in diversity – in effect a Europe of cities and regions rather than nation-states.

Many thanks to the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute for giving us permission to reblog this piece.

Dimitris Ballas is co-author of The Social Atlas of Europe with Danny Dorling and Benjamin Hennig. Copies of the book can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like reading…Once upon a time there was a country called Europe

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The Transport Debate: What a ‘normal’ family experiences in modern-day Britain

Iain Docherty

Iain Docherty

Jon Shaw

Jon Shaw

After several years almost out-of-sight, transport is creeping up the political agenda with government decision-making on projects such as HS2 being vigorously scrutinised as never before. The transport debate is a genuinely novel approach to thinking through the choices that face individuals and society, using the familiar idea of the journey as the basis for discussion. The featured journeys – the commute, the school run, the business trip, the family visit and the summer holiday – are made by members of the fictional Smith family, who uncover a wide array of transport issues as they travel around middle England and beyond. The Smiths face up to the very same problems we all encounter as we travel around, and reflect on their experiences to start to think about why they actually come about; which policy trade-offs were responsible for creating them in the first place; what impacts we all have to suffer as a result; and what we can do to fix them.

The Commute
The central character Paul, the archetypal ‘Motorway Man’ on whom the outcome of the 2010 General Election was said to have hinged, used to drive the eight miles to and from work along the motorway each day. But Paul now takes the train to work most of the time: not because of anything that transport policy did, or that the rail service improved or even because the rising cost of petrol made him think about alternatives, but instead because his doctors implored him to get more exercise as well as giving up smoking and watching his diet. At first he found even the 10-minute walk either end of the train trip a chore, but he knew that just by taking the train to work he was building in more than the half hour’s exercise per day that he’d been told to aim for. Once he mastered the iPod the children bought him last Christmas, his morning and evening walks have become even became enjoyable.

His wife Susan, on the other hand, remains a die-hard driver. Her typical day begins with the school run, and then more battling through the traffic to her office on the edge of town. When Susan first began this commute the main road out to the business park was nice and quiet, and had a 40 mph limit. But when that new supermarket was built and it needed a big roundabout that slowed everything down … To add insult to injury, the road now has a 30 mph limit and bus lanes – bus lanes! – for much of its length. Stuck in a longer than usual queue one day, she stares at the empty red tarmac and concludes that every planner in the land is out to get her with their trendy ideas.

But it’s not until one unfortunate morning when both of the Smith’s cars are out of action that Susan is confronted with the everyday reality for people like her office cleaner who don’t have a car in the first place. Going in one direction to school and then the other to work seems almost impossible because the buses don’t seem to join up, so Susan ends up resorting to taxis and lift sharing. Being without her car is discomfiting, but the experience forces her to consider why the family’s life is organized the way it is. Securing a place requested for Sophie in a school with better results has certainly seemed to help her education. But the short walk to the school gates of old has been replaced by a much longer car trip in the opposite direction from work. And why does everybody have to be in the office at the same time each day anyway? It’s not as if lots of work couldn’t be done from home now, and that would make things much easier on days when things go wrong.

The Business Trip
Once a month, Paul makes the trip to this company HQ in London Docklands. Today, unimpressed with the idea of his usual walk to the station in a near-monsoon, he decides to get the bus. Paul likes to think of himself as reasonably tech-savvy and quickly checks the timetable online finding a bus in a few minutes that will do the trick. As he puts his phone away, he wonders why, in the days of video conferencing and Skype, his company still spends a load of money sending people from all over the place to sit around the same table for a few hours. But as his boss, John, once neatly summarized in his southern American drawl, face-to-face communication remains important in the digital age because ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes when you give me bad figures, dude’.

Paul’s journey to London turns out to be far removed from the ‘seamless’ experience that recent newspaper articles about improved public transport promised. He gets to the bus stop with a couple of minutes to spare according to the timetable only to see the tail-lights of a bus disappearing into the distance. Another one doesn’t show up until just after 7.15 and now he’s getting nervous about catching his train. Without really thinking he flashes his rail season ticket at the bus driver, who looks quizzically back. ‘That’s your train ticket, sir; it’s years since we did travelcards for the buses and trains on this route. If you’re going to the station, that’ll be £1.70.’ Paul fumbles around in his pocket, holding up the bus in the process of finding the correct change. Once sat down, he wonders why it’s all so different in London where everyone just taps in and out with an Oyster card.

Paul’s journey goes from bad to worse as he experiences the perils of our fragmented railway: pressed for time he forgot to get his London ticket from the machine at his local station, and as his train spends a long time limping into Birmingham New Street he’s only got a couple of minutes to get to the FastTicket machine and back to the platform. When he does so, the inevitable has happened: the doors have just closed, the member of platform staff offers an apologetic shake of the head, and the Pendolino eases off into the tunnel. When the train manager comes round Paul finds out that he’ll have to buy a new walk-on ticket for his journey since his apex ticket was only valid on the previous train. Amazed at the high prices, and realising he may well have to pay for the replacement ticket himself, Paul somewhat ignominiously walks out of First class and heads for Standard class. But hardly any of the seats have proper tables and there are no power sockets available. As he forgot to charge his laptop, he has to give up on his presentation, sleep replacing work for the next hour.

The Summer Holiday
All of the children are excited about the family holiday, even though it would not be cool for Jack to admit it and Sophie’s been telling all her friends that she’d rather be going on a party trip to Malia. Given that Sophie will be 18 next year, this may well be the last time that they all get to go on this kind of holiday together. So Paul and Susan decided the family should all go to the south of France together, a place that Paul and Susan visited twice before the children arrived, and loved.

At Heathrow, conversation turns to how busy the airport is and the amount of construction going on. Paul wonders if the go-ahead for the third runway has already in fact been given; and with the amount of time their plane spends waiting for a take-off slot, once airborne, the whole family is in agreement that it would be a good idea. Looking down at thousands of suburban houses just like the Smiths’ own, Paul wonders what the noise must be like for people living under the flight path.

The sun shines on the Cote d’Azur for the whole of the Smiths’ holiday and Paul and Susan’s stresses well and truly drift away. During the second week of the holiday, even Susan gets a bit tired of the beach and joins Paul for a day wandering around Nice. They can’t help but be impressed by the modern tram system and come across an exhibition about the construction of a new line. But it’s the quality of the public spaces and the extent of pedestrianisation that most surprises and delights them both – what a great place to walk around for the day spending money in the shops and cafés.

The following day it is with heavy hearts that everyone packs up their things and ambles to the station to begin the journey home. Tanned and reinvigorated after two weeks of sun and Mediterranean food and drink, the family boards the TGV for their final couple of days in Paris. A friend had suggested that the Smiths should go home by rail rather than fly. Of course they thought this was a ludicrous idea until they found out just how quick it was, and that they could get bargain fares by booking early. The family can’t believe how smooth the ride is at nearly 200 mph as the train roars past the Burgundy vineyards, and as they head north at such speed, Paul’s mind drifts back to the bumpy and cramped hours in a Pendolino that he endures every month. ‘Why is it that everything seems to cost more in Britain but the service quality isn’t so good?” he thinks, putting his earphones back in.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused
In the book, there is more about these and the other journeys that the Smiths make as they go about their daily lives. They begin to realize that the choices they make about how to travel, and how well the transport system meets their needs and wants, reveals much about our collective assumptions on how the economy works, and how transport can best contribute. Thinking through the interaction of these economic, social and environmental benefits and costs in the round, the authors arrive at three rather fundamental questions that illuminate The Transport Debate as we find it in the UK: first, what is it, actually, that we want our transport systems to do? Second, what is the optimal balance between the different kinds of benefits and costs that arise from our transport systems? Third, how do we set about achieving this balance?

Throughout the book, the authors celebrate the advantages of a modern transport system, but argue that years of poorly conceived and executed transport policy have resulted in Britain’s transport system being far worse than it should be. They show that substandard transport creates economic, social and environmental costs, but also how these can be addressed through affordable and politically deliverable changes.

The transport debate was published in January 2014 by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. Jon Shaw is Professor and Head of Geography with Plymouth University. Iain Docherty is Professor of Public Policy and Governance and Head of Management at the University of Glasgow.

Reproduced with kind permission of the authors and Transport Times.

China’s Third Plenum Endorses the “Decisive” Role of the Market — Unfortunately for China


Salvatore Babones

Salvatore Babones

By Salvatore Babones, co-author of The future of development: A radical manifesto

The Third Plenary Meeting of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (the ‘Third Plenum’) took place November 9-13 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The Central Committee of the CPC holds plenary meetings once every year or so to debate and announce new policies. China is currently ruled by the 18th incarnation of the CPC Central Committee (each incarnation lasts about five years). The third plenary meeting of each Central Committee is traditionally the venue for announcing major policy changes. The just-passed Third Plenum did not disappoint.

The sweeping reform announced at the conclusion of the Third Plenum consisted of changing one word in all the hot air of CPC so-called socialist rhetoric: henceforth the role of the market in economic decision-making will be ‘decisive’. As recently as October 7 of this year the role of the market was officially ‘basic’, as noted by Bloomberg. What is the difference between ‘basic’ and ‘decisive’? At a minimum it means further currency market liberalization and allowing the creation of privately owned banks. At a maximum it means much, much more.

The central government in Beijing has signaled that it wants to rein in profligate spending by local governments across the country. It has directed state-owned banks to reduce lending for new construction projects and has shelved plans for subway construction in many major cities. The new watchword is profitability. If a major infrastructure project can’t prove that it will turn a profit, the central government wants to see it closed down. All of this has been done under the banner of working toward maintaining ‘sustainable’ growth.

Of course, in China ‘sustainable’ is taken to mean 7.5% annual growth instead of the double-digit growth of the last twenty years. I predicted this slowdown in a September 2011 article in Foreign Affairs magazine and reiterated it in a 2012 follow-up article. Back in 2011 — just two years ago — the official IMF long-term growth forecast for China was 10.5%. Now it’s 7%. My own prediction from 2011 was that China’s growth would slow to normal middle-income country levels of 3% or 4% by 2020. Now the even the economic pundits seem to agree that the Chinese economy may not grow forever.

Making the market ‘decisive’ means that the Chinese government has decided to place profits before people — and even before that previously invincible talisman, economic growth. Faced with its first slowdown in twenty years, it has decided to maintain profits growth even if that means accepting a slower growth rate for the economy as a whole and job losses for ordinary people. No more extraordinary over-investment in infrastructure and housing, no more low-ball pricing of public goods to keep the pressure on private companies. The CPC has decided to let the market decide.

The smart money in China is increasingly investing abroad, even in recession-plagued California housing market, rather than in China. Foreign exchange liberalization will only accelerate this trend toward capital flight. Meanwhile China itself has become the main engine of profits growth for many western companies. All this is in line with government plans to transform China into a normal economy. Normal middle-income countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia are characterized by low government investment, high capital flight, and uneven economic growth. As China turns its economic decision-making over to the market, it is set to join this undistinguished club.

The future of development: A radical manifesto by Gustavo Esteva, Salvatore Babones and Philipp Babcicky is published by Policy Press at £17.99. It explains the origins of development and underdevelopment and offers a new vision for development, demystifying the statistics that international organizations use to measure development and introducing the alternative concept of buen vivir: the state of living well. Order on the Policy Press website at 20% discount

New directions in research and policy ‘with’ and ‘for’ Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

Andrew Ryder

Andrew Ryder, co-editor of Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society

by Andrew Ryder, co-editor of Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

In the past, academia and Gypsy Lorists have conducted research ‘on’ rather than ‘for’ and ‘with’ Gypsy, Roma Traveller communities. Since Acton’s groundbreaking publication Gypsy Politics and Social Change in 1974, there has been a growing movement away from such hierarchical approaches. The publication of Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society provides a platform for current UK ‘voice scholarship’ on Gypsy, Roma Traveller issues.

Many of the book’s authors have fused research with practice and activism. The book demonstrates the values of such emerging research approaches and their validity in policy formation at a national and European level. Such processes are, in theory at least, set to be given greater impetus through the establishment by the European Union of a Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. The EU Roma Framework places an emphasis on engagement and deliberation with Roma communities, within which inclusive forms of research can play a pivotal role in facilitating dialogue, policy design and measuring progress.

Another point of importance is that academia in this field is coalescing within the European Academic Network on Romani Studies . This is being sponsored by the EU and Council of Europe and aims to “…facilitate intercultural dialogue and support efforts towards the social inclusion of Romani citizens in Europe. The project raises the visibility of existing research and fosters cooperation with policymakers, by providing evidence for better conceived policy initiatives”. Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British Society seeks to achieve similar objectives not just in reviewing the progress of social inclusion agendas at a UK and European level but also in adopting an intercultural approach facilitating debates on identity and diversity.

The book argues that inclusion may necessitate a paradigm shift in the UK and Europe from neoliberalism, and from what has been described as the ‘race to the bottom’. This is where nation states reduce welfare and intervention to make themselves more competitive and attractive to investors but where, through notions of the ‘small state’, they increasingly stand on the ‘sidelines’ and fail to intervene or challenge inequality. Evidence suggests that the adoption of neoliberal economic policies has come at a high price for Roma communities now confronted with the legacy of deindustrialisation, namely mass unemployment but also the role of scapegoat.

An alternative is presented in ‘global responsibility’, which is embedded in social justice and human rights. It is a worldview that seeks to promote responsible citizenship worldwide, based on the principles of solidarity and the dignity of the human person and the common good, and offers a global counter-hegemonic discourse.

Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society, edited by Joanna Richardson and Andrew Ryder, published on 12 September 2012 and can be ordered now at 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

Are Gypsies and Travellers likely to be more included in local communities following the introduction of new planning policy by the Government?

Gypsies and travellers book cover

‘Gypsies and travellers’, published this week

By Joanna Richardson, co-editor of Gypsies and Travellers and Principal Lecturer in housing at De Montfort University, Leicester.

Councils across England are looking at the impact of new planning policy introduced earlier this year by the Government. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its accompanying document the new Planning Policy for Traveller Sites requires local authorities to have an up-to-date body of evidence on need for Gypsy and Traveller sites and also to have identified a rolling five-year supply of land that could help in the deliverability of sites.

A decision made by the Planning Inspectorate in Hull that, due to a lack of up-to-date evidence, the development strategy was ‘unsound’, as reported by Inside Housing, has already created some anxiety amongst those councils who have not updated their Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessments, or identified land to include in core strategies. There is nervousness that planning decisions will be appealed in the future unless updated evidence is included in strategies now.

It is right that local authorities should concern themselves with planning and deliverability of sites, as the NPPF does create this impetus to ensure evidence on accommodation need and land supply is included in strategies. However, the challenge does not stop here; there is a need for councils to be concerned about actually delivering sites; and not just private sites but also affordable sites too.  Deliverability of sites is a hugely contentious issue as I found in my Joseph Rowntree Foundation research back in 2007 and this has not eased much since then.   

However, there are many more issues facing Gypsy and Traveller communities which flow out of a lack of accommodation, not least the seeming hostility to Gypsies and Traveller in many communities. There are health problems, challenges in accessing education and employment and seeming tensions in the justice system played out to the world during the eviction at Dale Farm. The media and politicians have a role too and the discourse in our newspapers, television and online has not got any more responsible and balanced than examples demonstrated for some original research I carried out for my book The Gypsy Debate published in 2006. 

The recent research undertaken as part of writing Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society,  a new book co-edited with Andrew Ryder and including a number of renowned experts including from the Gypsy and Traveller communities, demonstrates that objection to new sites is still strong in many local communities. One co-author, Maggie Smith-Bendell, has lived this experience for decades and provides a compelling first-hand account in the chapter on accommodation needs and planning issues. Another primary eye-witness account from the Gypsy community comes from Richard O’Neill who discusses the challenges he faced in trying to monitor press representation of travelling communities and hold them to account. Other chapters in the book include an examination of health, education, social work and employment issues written by academic experts in their fields. My co-editor and author Andrew Ryder writes with Iulius Rostas on the EU framework for national Roma integration strategies so that the wider view can be taken and reflections made on progress for Gypsies and Traveller empowerment and inclusion in British society.

Our book shows that whilst there have been many changes in the political and economic context for Britain, the challenges faced by Gypsies and Travellers in this country are still severe and action is needed, now.

Gypsies and Travellers: Empowerment and inclusion in British society, edited by Joanna Richardson and Andrew Ryder, is published on 12 September 2012 and can be ordered now at 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

The lives of families in their own words

Family futures coverFamily futures is about family life in areas of concentrated poverty and social problems, areas where it is difficult to bring up children and where surrounding conditions make family life more fraught and more limited. Families are at the forefront of change and progress as children are our common future, and what we do to them today will shape all our tomorrows. In poorer communities many strands of disadvantage combine because one problem compounds another, making these areas unpopular with families with choice. Yet low-income families need affordable housing above all, so they cluster in estates of social housing in the most problematic areas. A sense of belonging or community becomes vital because most low income families do not have cars, so they are dependent on local services and connections for most of their family needs and activities.

These neighbourhoods have long been poor, working class areas; their large estates were a product of earlier slum clearance and rebuilding before and after the Second World War. The proportion of newcomers, usually migrants from abroad, in all the areas has grown rapidly since the 1980s, following the loss of traditional local jobs and better housing options elsewhere for local families with more choice. This has compounded the pressures on already disadvantaged areas.

Parents with little choice about where they live have a stronger than average concern about their neighbourhoods. They try to control and shape their immediate surroundings but they rely not just on who their neighbours are and what family members they live near, but on wider structures and services that they cannot shape on their own. All the areas have many local facilities and services, added incrementally over years of effort to improve social conditions and reduce neighbourhood problems, but the overall condition of all the areas is poor. We talked to 200 families over ten years from 1998 to 2008, collecting their views on community problems and on how the areas changed during that time.

This book relies on the words of families themselves to answer three important questions:

What are the main challenges facing families in poor areas?

How are the areas changing and the challenges being met?

Have government efforts helped or hindered progress over the past decade?

Since 1998, many public and private initiatives have targeted area conditions and low income families, but it is rare to hear what families give their views on what works and doesn’t work, explain what helps and what hinders their children’s progress, what gaps there are and what new approaches may help. Parents have both positive and negative experiences of neighbourhood services and programmes in the most difficult areas; we point to the conspicuous gaps still waiting to be closed. Therefore, behind our questions about bringing up children in low income areas lie much bigger worries:

What future do families face in disadvantaged areas?

How far is the wider society responsible for that future?

Family futures by Anne Power, Helen Willmot and Rosemary Davidson, publishing this month, shows how responsibility can be shared.

Author interview: Yvonne Rydin

Photo of Yvonne Rydin

Yvonne Rydin, Professor of Planning, Environment and Public Policy at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and Director of the UCL Environment Institute, is author of The purpose of planning, published this month. She was kind enough to be the first in our new series of author interviews. Here she answers some questions we put to her:

TPP: How did you come to be interested in planning?

YR: At university I tried out mathematics and then economics before coming across a multi-disciplinary subject called Land Economy. This really appealed to me as it allowed one to think about the environment from the perspectives of law, economic, property theory, planning and so on. I guess I had always been interested in the world immediately around me and this gave me the frameworks to understand why the countryside and our urban areas were the way they were. A spell in a surveying practice saw me working on planning appeals and development proposals. I became fascinated in the way that the planning system actually worked. This led to my first area of research on housing land policy under the Thatcher government of the early 1980s.

TPP: What areas have you been involved in during your career?

YR: I have been in a range of departments: estate or land management, applied economics, geography and then geography & environment, and lastly in planning. In each place I learnt about a different take on planning or, more generally, governing our urban and natural environments. I became particularly interested in the environmental agenda around 1990 and have since then tried to put all my interests together in terms of governing for sustainability, particularly urban sustainability. I have researched a number of different policy domains – housing, retail, transport, water , etc. – but in each case sought to understand what the planning efforts in the broadest sense were achieving.

TPP: Tell us about a typical day in your working life (if there is such a thing!)

YR: I am half-time in the Bartlett School of Planning and half-time Director of the UCL Environment Institute. So a day can combine teaching our MSc students on the MSc Sustainable Urbanism with work to support inter-disciplinary dialogue on environmental topics through the Environment Institute. For example, we are currently organising a two day Anglo-American Symposium on energy management and the built environment, and I am chairing a UCL Commission on Healthy Cities, bringing together colleagues across UCL to tackle the inter-relationship between the built environment and health outcomes. I also run an EPSRC-funded project on urban energy initiatives called CLUES, which is currently collating and analysing a database of such initiatives across the UK.

TPP: What do you think the purpose of planning should be – to preserve historic and interesting buildings, to encourage new builds to accommodate society’s needs of the 21st century, a combination of the two or something else entirely?

YR: The planning system has no choice but to tackle the whole gamut of problems that our urban and natural environments pose. This will involve managing the environments we currently have but also shaping change through new development and resource exploitation. This multi-faceted nature of the planning system creates many complexities for practice but the challenge is to deliver environmental change and conservation in line with public policy goals that carry broad support within society.

TPP: What are the major planning challenges for the 21st century?

YR: Undoubtedly the main challenge that 21st century faces in all policy domains in climate change and the need to restructure our society and economy to deliver carbon reductions within a timescale that will limit climate change. This has implications for the planning system since we will need different towns, cities and countryside once we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels and developed a better understanding of the carbon implications of our activities.

TPP: How does the recently published Localism bill link to David Cameron’s idea of The Big Society?

YR: The Localism Bill is a fascinating mix of ideas. It proposes Neighbourhood Plans supported by Neighbourhood Development Orders which could give local communities much more say in the planning decisions and vision for their immediate locality. However for this to represent some form of local agreement on environmental conservation and change, there will need to be considerable involvement by local communities in neighbourhood planning rather than the ‘usual suspects’ dominating proceedings. This rather assumes we will be transformed into active citizens. But neighbourhood planning will still need the support of professional planners to give the wider picture, show how local development may have non-local consequences and enable local communities to think of long term consequences as well.

TPP: What do you think of the idea that householders may be allowed to build extensions without planning permission?

YR: In general I think this is a good idea. There is a lot of micro-management within the planning system that consumes considerable time and resources. That said, people often look to the planning systems to resolve neighbourhood disputes over extensions, etc. If this is taken outside the planning system there will be a need for neighbourhood dispute resolution services to be available.

TPP: And finally, have you ever sought planning permission for a project yourself and, if so, how did it feel to be “on the other side” with your knowledge of planning?

YR: Not in my private life but I started out my professional life ‘on the other side’. This gave me a clear understanding of how the economics of the development process is integral to urban change. As a citizen, I have attended public meetings around local development plans and must admit that I have often found them baffling and frustrating. There is a real need to find a way to engage with the public that recognises both what people actually want from planning consultation and how planners are able to use and respond to the fruits of consultation. Easier said than done!

Many thanks Yvonne. If you’d like to know more about Yvonne’s thoughts on planning, her book can be ordered here at 20% discount.

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