Only a Town Planner Would Run a Toxic-Waste Pipeline through a Recreational Area: Planning and Planners in the British Press

Article excerpt

Given the many planning reforms underway, including the increasing emphasis on public participation, and the many high-profile issues to which planning can be linked, it is an important time to reflect on the media image of planning and planners. This paper draws on the results of a survey of newspaper coverage in British national and local papers in 2003-04 to illustrate how planning and planners are being represented and framed in the media. The results of the survey suggest a frequently stereotypical and critical image in the national print media, with more of a focus on planning in action in the local press. A similar survey of the professional journal Planning suggests a mismatch in public and professional images of planning. Taken together, these results give cause for concern as to how planning is represented in the public press and it is argued that such 'planning pessimism' highlights the need for greater attention to media representations of planning and planners.

Planning skills are in high demand in contemporary Britain, with the Egan Review (Egan, 2004) highlighting the central place of planning and planners in the creation of so-called 'Sustainable Communities'. Yet, despite this renaissance for planning, Burning and Glasson (2004) highlight a 2001 Local Government Association survey which found that 87 per cent of English local authorities had experienced problems regarding the recruitment and retention of planning staff. They point to the poor image of the planning profession among the general public as a major cause of this problem.

Taking its title from the punchline of a joke printed in The Daily Star (Daily Star, 2004), this article is concerned with that public image, and specifically with how planning and planners are portrayed in the print media. This is clearly an important topic, not only because of its links to recruitment and retention, but also because of its impacts upon the policy process and public confidence in the planning system. After briefly reviewing the rising fortunes of planning in recent years and the importance of the media image of planning and planners, this paper draws on empirical evidence to highlight the 'planning pessimism' frequently seen in the British press. It concludes with a call for action to address this pessimism.

British planning: a time of change

Ongoing reforms

It is an important time for planning, one of the most high-profile activities undertaken by any local authority in Great Britain. Central government sees planning as a key vehicle for delivery across a wide range of policy fronts, with planning being linked to a number of high-profile issues such as sustainable development, housing provision, environmental justice, social justice and economic growth. Expectations are high. For example, commenting on 'how fundamental the planning profession is to everyday life', Keith Hill, former Planning Minister for England, said that 'the government is committed to a huge programme of housing growth and regeneration and the planning system underpins all of that change' (Winkley, 2004, 10).

To deliver on these expectations, the government is engaged in a number of planning reforms. These reforms include re-scaled development planning, the growth of spatial planning and a greater emphasis on public participation. A key part of the policy context has been an emphasis on the speed of decisions in planning (Gwilliam, 2002), yet there is also a growing emphasis on public participation in planning (ODPM, 2004b; Scottish Executive, 2004b). The front cover of an ODPM strategy document boldly states:

planning shapes the places where people live and work. So it is right that people should be enabled and empowered to take an active part in the process. Strengthening community involvement is a key part of the Government's planning reforms. (ODPM, 2004a)

However, Scottish Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm, when setting out targets to modernise planning by both increasing efficiency and inclusion, acknowledged

that. …