Friday, August 29, 2014

“The Planners”: Getting Underway

I’ve mentioned the BBC show “The Planners” several times.  The show is English reality television, showing land use permitting processes on the other side of the pond.  In those earlier mentions, I expressed the hope of learning something about land use entitlement under a different set of rules and complained that I couldn’t find the show on my cable system or on the BBC website.

 Eventually, a reader took pity on my naiveté and emailed me that all the episodes were available on YouTube.  He was right.  Nuts.

So I was finally able to begin watching the show.  As I had expected, there were differences between the land use processes in England and California.

But what was more striking was the similarity between the personalities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  For nearly every person I watched on “The Planners”, from self-righteous applicants to dowdy planners to haughty planning councilors to unhappy neighbors, I’d seen their parallels during my years in land use.

Starting today and continuing occasionally, I’ll provide links and comments about episodes.  If your time permits, I recommend watching the show.  It’s not necessarily great television.  If you have fun social plans on your calendar, I wouldn’t cancel them to watch the show.  But if you were planning on watching “Big Brother” or another of its ilk, I’d encourage you to try “The Planners” instead.  You might gain some insight to land use planning, and to the personalities that populate the land-use world.

The most significant storyline was about 540 homes proposed for open fields near a town.  The proponents argued that more housing was needed and that the economy needed a boost.  (I can think of North Bay parallels.)  The opponents were looking for every argument possible to stop the project, including flailing about in the mud looking for great-toed newts, hoping to prove that the land was critical wildlife habitat.  (Once again, the North Bay parallels are too obvious to be missed.)

To me, I think the issue came down to two points that were seen only as flashes on the screen.  The site plan, seen only in passing, seems sprawling.  Perhaps the homes were modest in size, but they were sited on large lots that were unlikely to be walkable.  In another passing moment, an opponent outside the hearing was carrying a placard calling for “Infill, not Fields”.  Even in England, urbanism is fighting an uphill battle.

One interesting comment was the suggestion that the Planning Council would be liable for damages if they rejected a project that was later approved at a higher level.  I truly hope that the comment was wrong because that type of rule would have a chilling effect on the permitting process.

Other storylines included a neighbor peevishly complaining that a proposed dining room addition next door would block too much of her sun and an applicant peevishly complaining that it was too hard to park her BMW station wagon in the parking yard off the alley and that she should be allowed to park in her front yard like many of her neighbors.  No matter where you go, peevishness has a role in land-use planning.

The latter tale included an official suggesting that it might be “churlish” to deny the applicant the right to park in her front yard when so many of her neighbors had seemingly established a precedent.  I live for the day when I hear “churlish” used in an American land use hearing.

But the best story of the episode was a married pair of retired doctors, both in their eighties, who wanted to put solar panels on their roof.  They knew that they likely wouldn’t live long enough to garner the economic benefits, but thought they owed it to the next generation to reduce their carbon footprint.

The highlight was when they confronted the town historical preservation officer who was opposing the application because of the conflict with the adjoining town wall that dated to the Roman era.  The woman pertly advised the historical officer that he was on the wrong side of history and that within a decade solar panels would be as ubiquitous as bicycles.  It might have been the best single moment of television I saw this year.

The biggest story in the second episode was the proposed expansion of an egg farm near the Scottish border.  Unfortunately, it was a story that depended on competing scientific studies about whether chicken dung particles could be airborne during handling and whether the particles would pose a health risk.  As well “The Planners” is produced, it was a difficult storyline to squeeze into the format and became very forgettable.

A second storyline, about a proposed home of modern architecture in an older neighborhood, also fell short when it ended in an anticlimax.  (Thankfully, English reality television folks don’t feel a need to pump drama into every situation.)

But there were a couple of stories that redeemed the episode.  There was a code enforcement officer, who a citizen from an earlier enforcement action described as being like “a terrier at a trouser leg”, effectively resolving a rubbish-filled backyard.

And there was the story of the Lemon Field, a one-acre stone-walled site on the edge of a village, that had been vacant for 300 to 400 years.  The applicant was proposing a private cul-de-sac with seven homes of undistinguished architecture.  (Side note: Even on the other side of the Atlantic, planners prepare renderings of “walkable” communities with the most dominant feature being a car driving into a cul-de-sac.)

Not surprisingly, the village preferred to retain their little bit of the countryside.  A local dairywoman described the proposal as”knocking Gloucester Cathedral to put up a multi-story car park”.  However, the eventual decision seemed to focus more on the architecture than on the preservation of the open field.

If time permits, I hope you enjoy “The Planners”.

In my next post, I’ll write about the beginning of the election season.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment