A CHRISTIAN PLANNER
AND DEVELOPMENT CONTROL
I want to focus on the role of a town planner in a bureaucracy and to see how a Christian standpoint influences, or even governs the way he or she sees that role, particularly when development control decisions have to be made.
First, I shall look at the nature of bureaucracy and town planning as a bureaucratic activity. Secondly, I shall sketch in the position of the town planner - the 'expert' within the bureaucracy. Thirdly, I hope to describe how planning can be viewed from a Christian perspective, and finally to see how a Christian perception can shape the everyday work of a development control planner.
TOWN PLANNING AS A BUREAUCRATIC ACTIVITY
It was Max Weber, the German sociologist, who, in the early years of this century, made what is still an outstanding critique of bureaucracy. His analysis was set within a broader discussion of the nature of power and authority. He saw power as being derived from three main sources of authority - traditional authority, such as one sees in monarchies; charismatic authority, which is exercised by an outstanding leader who attracts a personal following; and 'bureaucratic' authority, which has become the notable feature of industrialised nation status.
Weber set out six main characteristics of a bureaucracy, which are as follows:
1. A bureaucracy has a fixed area of jurisdiction - the field within which it operates - generally ordered by administrative regulations.
2. A bureaucracy is hierarchical, with the opportunity for a person aggrieved by a decision to appeal upwards to a higher authority.
3. Written documents form the basis of management; these are totally independent of any official's personal affairs.
4. The management of a bureaucracy presupposes the expert training of its practitioners.
5. The bureaucracy requires the full working capacity of the individuals within it.
6. The management of a bureaucracy follows general rules which are more or less stable, exhaustive and which are to be applied impartially.
Today, some of these features can seem so obvious as hardly to require particular comment, but this, perhaps, illustrates the extent to which the bureaucratic mode of government is so much part of our way of life.
The town planning system is undeniably part of contemporary bureaucracy, and in the way it is organised, demonstrates the characteristics described by Weber. The field of town planning is defined by statute and is bound by a plethora of administrative regulations. It is undoubtedly hierarchical, with the Secretary of State for the Environment at the top and the District Councils at the bottom. The core of the work of all planning authorities is their files and policy documents.
A town planner is required to be fully trained in the workings of the organisation, and he or she generally has to work solely and full-time for it. The system itself is managed according to general rules which are to be applied impartially and without discrimination - based on land use principles and not, for example, influenced by the nature of an individual or by particular land ownerships.
Creativity v. Bureaucracy
In one sense the existence of a town planning bureaucracy is curious, and yet in another, perhaps inevitable. Curious, because the origins of town planning were set entirely outside any State bureaucratic system. Town planning started and gathered force from a mixture of private enterprise, individual conscience, and utopian dreams for the future.
Inevitably, though, once town planning became seen as a practical means of ameliorating existing appalling conditions and providing a rational means of building for the future, it became absorbed into government. Like the provision of health and education before, it became apparent that town planning was too important to be left to the vagaries of the private sector or to the enthusiasm of individual visionaries.
There is, though, an essential creativity in town planning which perhaps sits uneasily within a rigid bureaucracy, and ever since the State embraced and enfolded town planning within it, there has been a constant tension - a tension between creative impulses which, by their nature, are unprecedented and unforeseen and can have unknowable consequences, and the requirements of a State system for stability and predictability.
Is not, then, the tendency of a bureaucratic State machine to stifle the very essence of town planning? Is this not why planning tends to have a dead-hand image?
If this contradiction has occurred but is nevertheless tolerated, it is because it has been considered that the value of a State-organised planning system outweighs any smothering effect it may have. The reasons behind this view are not hard to discern. A free hand to do what one likes with one's land or property may release a creative urge which could have some dramatic and beneficial result - such as Ebenezer Howard's vision of a Garden City, realised at Letchworth.
But there could also be a harmful outcome. Some persons' 'creativity' might be a great loss to others - giving rise to increased real costs, or the loss of some unquantifiable qualities of amenity or tranquillity. It has therefore been thought right to place some curb on individual freedom in order to safeguard the wellbeing of the majority, even if a rather grey dullness is the price to pay.
And so, perhaps, although it may be irksome to some, there is a purpose in having the town planning system largely contained within the State, and subject to bureaucractic regulation.
Impartiality v. the Machinery of Power
But things are never as simple as that. In describing the essentials of a bureaucracy, Weber was fully aware that he was cataloguing the ideal requirements, and not what actually happens. Any bureaucracy is subject to influences - from individuals seeking power, from pressure groups - and it also generates a self-perpetuating momentum of its own.
The achievement of impartiality is a chimera, even if one could agree on what the ground rules for impartiality were. The town planning system operates to distribute benefits and costs, but there is no consensus among the whole community as to what those benefits and costs are or who should gain and who therefore has to lose.
The result is that benefits tend to go to those who can best manipulate the levers of the system or who have greater access to the sources of power and influence, while the costs are borne by those to whom the town planning system is yet another example of an unapproachable and remote organ of State. Moreover, it is the powerful who decree what are to be classed as benefits.
Green Belts and private transport are judged to be benefits by those who are powerful and such is their influence that Green Belts and private transport are expected to be seen as benefits by everyone. Those who conceivably might have a different viewpoint - those without ready access to public transport or who are forced to travel great distances across the Green Belt to work - do not often get listened to, and what is worse, often have to pay double, for example by having to put up with a new road routed through their neighbourhood.
The so-called impartiality of bureaucracy, is in reality, nothing of the kind, and the town planning system, as a bureaucratic organisation, is considerably less than fair in distributing benefits and costs.
And so there is a double accusation against current British town planning - first it stifles creativity, and secondly, it fails as a mechanism for achieving fairness in the distribution of the nation's resources in land and property. Little wonder that there are cries for getting the system off people's backs, and assertions that we can now do without a self-seeking and insensitive bureaucratic machine. Before taking up this point, I would like to introduce the second part of this talk and look at the planner as the 'expert official'.
THE TOWN PLANNER - THE EXPERT WITHIN THE BUREAUCRACY
Once again I turn to Max Weber. He described the official within a bureaucratic organisation in these terms:
First, he or she holds office as a 'vocation'. The official has to undergo training for a long period, and then, when in the job, he or she is expected not to use office either as a means of personal advancement or to be exploited for private gain.
Secondly, there are various attributes which become attached to the office holder as a consequence of holding that position. He or she will usually enjoy a distinct social esteem by comparison with the government. He or she will be appointed to the post, rather than elected, on the basis of competence for the task in hand. Normally the official will enjoy tenure for life, in order to guarantee independence of thought and action. He or she will receive a fixed salary, rather than payment based on the quantity or quality of work, with the salary at a lower level than could be commended outside the bureaucracy, as a reflection of the greater security of the job.
Finally, the official is set for a career in the hierarchy, working his or her way up as opportunity, competence or luck enables them so to do.
Experts in retreat
Weber's typology of the official was written over half a century ago, and clearly some aspects have worn less well than others - such as guaranteed tenure, and absolute job security. However, the principles are still widely believed to be applicable even if, in practice, they are not universally upheld. The flavour which comes out of this description is that of a competent, impartial administrator who, because of his or her training and expertise, is entitled to make decisions on behalf of others - on behalf of the government.
But this concept - the distillation of the various principles mixed together - is more under challenge than the principles looked at individually. Because there can be little doubt - the 'expert' is in retreat. Even in the old, well-established professions, such as law and medicine, expert advice is less readily taken without question than before. In the more upstart area of expertise of town planning, scepticism over the value of the practitioner's advice is commonplace and has been for a long time. This is partly because of the widespread suspicion of anyone who professes to be an 'expert', particularly if he or she tries to outwit their audience with esoteric and abstruse jargon, but partly also because, along with successes, planners have been, rightly or wrongly, associated with some spectacular disasters - such as high rise flats, thoroughly alien city centre redevelopments, and a wholesale destruction of well-loved areas.
'Expert' or 'Umpire'?
Some twenty-four years ago, Professor Peter Self, in his influential book, Cities in Flood, asserted that the Local Government Town Planner's role was seen by many as that of an umpire, arbitrating, on the basis of his or her expertise, between competing land uses, and acting as a neutral co-ordinator. He claimed that this was a negative and self-defeating view of town planning, born out of disillusionment and lack of nerve.
Instead, the Town Planner should be imposing policies upon the pattern of development and land use; co-ordination is the means by which planning proceeds, but it is the means, not the end. One could say that the umpire role is the bureaucratic stance par excellence, while the active role, favoured by Peter Self, is the creative aspect of town planning, and that in this distinction over the place of the town planner in the scheme of things, we have returned to our earlier discussion on the conflict between the creative impulse and the bureaucratic dead hand.
The Local Government Town Planner is now caught in a real dilemma. He or she can, with renewed enthusiasm, adopt the Self approach and try to become a dynamic force for change - only to find their expertise doubted and their vision challenged. Or he or she can adopt the umpire role, disavowed by Self, but encouraged by Government and find themselves imprisoned in an unpopular and apparently unfeeling bureaucracy, where he or she is at the behest of those with the most power.
It is hardly surprising that the typical Planning Officer's response is one of nerve failure. He or she is afraid to stick their neck out, either because they will not be believed, or because they will be proved wrong - and that is the likely lot of anyone who looks to the future- or they retreat into a narrow conception of their umpire role, knowing that they are in an often false position, and betraying idealistic impulses.
Planning, as practised by Local Government, is in danger of being reduced to a catalogue of rules of thumb, a few well-worn 'standards', and a predictably negative response to anything new.
We can summarise this rather gloomy diagnosis thus. As an activity, planning is widely perceived as a brake on creativity. This perhaps could be justified if in doing so it genuinely prevents the bad while promoting the good. Since however it cannot even guarantee that, then there must be considerable doubts over the value of the whole bureaucratic edifice. Caught up in this, the Local Government Town Planner is uncertain of his or her role; as a State bureaucrat, they are committed to the machinery of planning, but if they stray beyond closely defined parameters, they run the risk of losing what audience and credibility they still retain.
This is a gloomy diagnosis - at any rate, gloomy for those who believe that there is a genuine place in our society for Town Planning. Is there a way of dispelling that gloom? I believe that there is, and I find the means of doing so through Christian commitment. Not everyone seeking a legitimate role for town planning will find it this way - perhaps only a minority will - but I hope that what I am about to say will show how at least one Christian is trying to work out his faith in his work, and in doing so, trying to recapture an enthusiasm and commitment which many are, regrettably, losing.
TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Let us begin with doctrinal assertions which I believe to be particularly relevant to land use planning:
1. This is God's world, in which He has created an environment which is inherently beautiful and harmonious.
2. The essence of God is love, and Jesus is the epitome and supreme example of that love.
3. Humankind is the highest form of creation, but humankind has fallen. We, as humankind, can be saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Humankind's nature, however, is essentially sinful and continually requires the grace of God.
4. Each person is of equal worth to God, and is capable of being saved.
If we apply these statements to the work of a town planner, the following general principles emerge:
The home provided by God for Humankind
Fundamentally, the environment is worth caring for. It is not ours, but we are stewards for it while we live. Humankind has changed it - sometimes for the better accommodation of ourselves and the remainder of creation, and sometimes humankind has damaged it, so that it is more difficult for later generations to support themselves. We can only act within our own generation, but it ought to be a basic principle that we hand it on in no less an advantageous state than it was in when we received it.
More than that, a Christian planner should actually love the environment as being the home provided by God for Humankind. Love implies passion, and a passionate care for the whole of creation should be a motivating principle. Let us look briefly at both the natural environment and that made by Humankind.
The natural environment, of course, is only to a small extent unaffected by Humankind - we are not talking about a pristine world of nature, but a habitat fashioned by Humankind over thousands of years to suit what is regarded as our needs. Not all of it deserves an equally passionate defence.
We should, though, treasure those parts where it is clear that Humankind and the natural world are in harmony, where people are not degrading the natural environment or taking known risks with its ecological systems and structures. Similarly we should oppose practices where it is reasonably demonstrated that long term damage is the likely result.
God's hand in landscape and buildings
We should also not be afraid of caring for what is beautiful. Beauty is partly subjective, but there is to a large extent a shared consensus on what constitutes beauty, as witnessed by the popularity of fine landscapes. A Christian planner will see in such landscapes the hand of God, and will exert himself or herself to preserve its beauty.
This seems to be the right stance for a Christian planner, even if they have little direct influence on the shaping of the natural environment. With the made environment it is a different matter - they do have some influence. It is possible to see everyone's handiwork as imperfect, because men and women themselves are flawed, and therefore not to care unduly what happens to it.
This would be wrong. Without actually wishing to worship some fine building or buildings, when one sees clear examples where what has been built has been the result of high aspirations and noble ideals, then one recognises God's influence at work, and one should not be ashamed of glorifying it.
One may look at one of our great cathedrals and think of the hardships endured by the builders, of the endless labour, the injuries and death which were part and parcel of its construction, of the jealousies and prestige-seeking of those who commissioned it. But one can also see in it a burning desire to give of one's best, to create something which would inspire all who saw and entered it, and which would, perhaps, enable them to draw nearer to God.
Looked at in that way, a Christian planner can only be thankful and hope that he or she will be able, by their actions and support, to be part of that tradition and even to contribute worthily to the built environment which their successors will inherit.
Ugliness is an affront to God
Conversely, the Christian planner ought to oppose resolutely all that is tawdry in the environment, all that is planned with limited time horizons, all that denies the human scale and human involvement, all that is indifferent to people's needs, all that is simply ugly. The Christian planner is doing so, not just because it is spoiling the environment, but because it is an affront to God, to treat God's creation with contempt.
Care for People
Whilst we should care for the environment, we should to an even greater extent care for people. In the course of his or her work, the development control planner will come into contact with four categories of people - applicants for planning permission, and their agents, if they have them; councillors, especially members of the Planning Committee; his or her own planning colleagues; and members of the public, particularly those objecting to planning applications.
Some relationships are quite likely to be stressful - especially those with applicants and objectors; others are likely to be in terms of inequality - relationships with councillors, who are the employers, and with colleagues, who may be in either superior or lower positions in the hierarchy. There will be temptations to become arrogant with members of the public, particularly if they are awkward; to try to overawe applicants with a display of technical expertise; to be scornful of councillors, who may give the impression of simply trying to score political points off one another; to denigrate one's colleagues for their apparent shortcomings.
We all face these temptations; the Christian planner should, at any rate, always strive to overcome them - to look upon others as children of God, to see them as of equal worth in God's sight. This implies respect, humility and an appreciation of others' viewpoints. It does not necessarily imply having to agree on all things with everyone; there is a place in Christianity for pointing out what we believe to be errors in other people. We have to tread a difficult path between a firm belief in one's convictions and an unyielding self-righteousness.
Let us now see how we can work out these principles in practice.
THE CHRISTIAN DEVELOPMENT CONTROLLER
Let us envisage, for a moment, a Christian Development Control Planner. He or she is part of a bureaucratic machine, frequently regarded, as we have observed earlier, as an impediment to creative thinking; he or she is part of a profession, unsure of its role, often feeling that they are being used to prop up an unfair distribution of benefits and costs.
However, he or she is also imbued with a vision of a better world, of a world created by God, and a world redeemed through Jesus Christ. What, then, can they do?
The first thing is that the Christian development controller should be prepared to take a stand on the side of justice and fairness - but be totally honest about it. When an application is submitted, the questions to be asked are:
* Who will benefit and who will lose, if it is approved?
* Whose needs are being met and are any being ignored?
This questioning can apply to a domestic extension or to a housing estate.
In the case of the former, the answers may be simple - the owner benefits, and no-one will really suffer. There will be borderline cases where an adjoining resident will suffer some loss of privacy or amenity. This is where honesty comes in. If negotiations to reduce the harmful effects fail, then the advantages and disadvantages have to be spelled out to those who will make the decision - the elected councillors.
This ought not to be a let-out for the planner - he or she ought to be prepared to recommend one course or another. The principle, though, ought always to be to try to reconcile - either by gaining agreement between the parties, or by explaining to the aggrieved neighbour why permission ought to be granted.
Challenge unjust development values
A new housing estate is a different matter. There will be many costs and benefits. Clearly a major gainer will be the fortunate landowner who reaps a windfall profit on the land. The development control planner can do nothing about that, although I for one would claim that it is fundamentally unfair and a crippling handicap to just planning. The builder will be a gainer, and so will be his employees.
There will also eventually be fortunate houseowners - but who are they? In the case of land around Oxford, for example, sites can be sold at such high prices that builders are forced to build lower density houses commanding prices which enable that land to be paid for. The houses clearly meet a demand, but what about the people in the area who need housing but cannot afford what is on offer? Are their needs never to be met?
The best the development control planner can do is to negotiate with the builder for as reasonable a mixture of houses as can be obtained, but accept that the land market is a phenomenon over which he or she can exercise little influence. There is not much to be gained by stating that the value of land ought to be a reflection of the planning permission, and if the latter specifies smaller houses with the consequence of lower profits then the value of the land should be reduced accordingly. Such is the competition for land in areas of high demand, that builders will bid up the value and hope then to get the permission changed afterwards to cover their costs and give them a profit.
This may not be fair or just to those needing cheaper accommodation, but the planner can only do his or her best in unpropitious circumstances. But there is no reason why he or she has to be silent about the injustice in compiling the report.
So, as a first question, always look for the benefits and costs, and seek a just decision. If that cannot be achieved, use one's voice to press for changes. There is a passage in Paul's letter to the Romans (chapter 13: 1-9) where he is apparently arguing that one should always defer to those in authority. The Bible scholars would qualify this by stating that Paul was assuming that those in authority are God's agents and are motivated to do His will.
Where this cannot be assumed, then one supposes that higher authority can be challenged. Perhaps this question of land values and the injustices it gives rise to is a case where higher authority should be challenged - and the Christian development controller, seeing the effects of this, ought to lend his or her weight to the challenge.
Encourage God-given creativity
A second question concerns creativity. A Christian development controller should always be supportive of those who care for the environment and are clearly wanting to make a creative contribution. Always look upon the designer or applicant in as positive and optimistic a light as possible - as one who actually wants to produce something of lasting value which will enhance its setting, either by being a good unobtrusive neighbour, or by acting as a beacon of quality in an unremarkable or mediocre area.
By acting in this way the Christian development controller can help subdue the notion of the bureaucratic dead hand, can encourage quality, and indeed, find a genuine role for himself or herself. To glorify God, through the medium of another's efforts, may sound pretentious and arrogant, but if done with humility and enthusiasm, it is a worthy role.
In some cases, that is all that is required. In others, though, a helping hand may be needed. A designer is normally looking at a scheme from his or her client's interest. The development controller is looking at the scheme from a wider perspective. To offer genuine help to match the two perspectives is a valid position for the planner to offer; indeed, it is a duty.
The development controller should not be ashamed or defensive about this, but a Christian background should give an added confidence over the motivation for doing so. There is, of course, an implied give and take over this. If the applicant is unyielding, then, again, the planner can only report his or her efforts to the councillors for their decision, but before that, he or she ought always to seek to find a meeting of minds.
First, to seek fairness; secondly, to encourage creativity; thirdly, to be prepared to admit mistakes. We all err but none of us likes owning up to our mistakes and losing face. Some people feel diminished if they have been caught out and shown to be wrong. This is not a Christian standpoint.
The Christian development controller should never be ashamed to say that he or she was wrong - for example, that a building that has gone up should, instead, have been refused. The individual development controller is not, of course, responsible entirely for planning decisions, but the bureaucratic tendency always to pass on responsibility to someone else should not be part of the Christian planner's habits.
The world may claim the admission of error as a weakness of either the system or the individual, but equally it may honour the honesty. No matter, a Christian has to do the right thing in the sight of God, and confession is part of being Christian.
Accept your role
Fourthly, and finally, the Christian development controller must accept that on one's own he or she is not going to change the world. There will be some problems always beyond him or her. We have considered the big problem of land valuation, in a different context, but there are others at a development control level, where perhaps a 'correct' Christian approach is equally elusive.
Consider an application for a betting office, or, say, a pornographic video shop. What should the Christian development controller do, faced with one of these? Planning legislation expressly forbids using moral judgements in making planning decisions. Questions of conscience, however, are bound to raise themselves. They can arise in other, perhaps less stark ways - an application for a cigarette factory, or one for a private health hospital, will prick the conscience of some Christians.
I regret that I cannot give any answers to these kinds of problems, largely because I do not think that there can be a Christian development control response - a Christian response, yes, but a development control response, no.
Perhaps the only honest course for a Christian placed in this position is to acknowledge that the problem is beyond him or her, in this particular situation, to say that he or she is not prepared to recommend one way or another, and leave it to others. But that would be opting out, unless the Christian is prepared to press in other avenues and at other levels, for changes in society's habits or legislations which would render such applications unnecessary.
I have tried to show how a Christian can work in the field of town planning. It is a subjective view, and I would not expect everyone to agree with it. I am still left with wondering what difference it actually makes being a Christian Planner, as opposed to, say, a Humanist Planner. It is difficult to do so because I am not a Humanist, and know only imperfectly what motivates the Humanist. Working alongside non-Christians, there are many whom I respect and admire.
But in the end, I can only come back to what I said earlier about the unease and gloom over the role of a planner in a bureaucracy and a society which in some manifestations is unjust. Some, perhaps many, will despair - at the system, at their lack of esteem.
This cannot be the standpoint of a Christian and it is that which distinguishes him or her from the non-Christian. I am reminded of those magnificent words of Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, from verse 10 onwards.
'Finally, then, find your strength in the Lord, in his mighty power. Put on all the armour which God provides, so that you may be able to stand firm against the devices of the devil. For our fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens. Therefore, take up God's armour; then you will be able to stand your ground when things are at their worst, to complete every task and still to stand'.
'Still to stand'. Never to give up, never to allow despair to take control, never to lose hope. All Planners should have some sense of time, of things in the past, of things to come, of the possibility of a better tomorrow, but it is often difficult to sustain that vision.
It is the contribution of the Christian planner to go beyond this - to perceive, behind the changing environment, in the midst of conflicts and competition for resources, at the heart of the struggles to achieve something worthwhile, the hand of a loving God - a God who will always be there, who will never be defeated, and who will unfailingly give reason for hope. The role of the Christian Planner is not to develop just a sense of time, but a sense of the eternal.
From ACPA Newsletter No. 13 & 14, Winter 1988/89