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.