Friday, 28 February 2014

The Planners is enjoyable, but should more be expected of the BBC?

'The Planners' is one of very few programmes that my wife and I watch together. She enjoys the human interest and drama at the heart of each application and I enjoy the novelty of seeing what I do on a daily basis being processed as prime time 'docu-soap'. (We both enjoy playing the 'approved or refused' guessing game half way through each programme.)

Since my wife has no idea about the planning system the programme also helpfully explains to her what I do between leaving in the morning and getting home at night. It is, I tell her, a pretty accurate reflection of my world. The individuals that are featured generally reflect the officers, members, nimbies, architects and consultants that I come across and work with (though I have to tell her that it is not typical for officers to visit objectors to explain recommendations...).

Since though I do have an idea about the planning system I do not, as my wife does, take the editorial tone and narrative of the programme at face value in the way that she does. She has a theatrical background so I tell her that she is seeing scenes in a play and not the whole performance. Her opinion of the planning system, and for sake of this point let's say most of general public, is being informed by the programme.

As hard as I tried not to interrupt Wednesday night's programme I could not help myself pausing a few times to explain some facts and figures and some points of policy and procedure (the fun never stops in the Stafford house...) because of what I felt was misinformed and misleading commentary.

For example, it is stated in the introduction to the programme that "in a drive to boost the economy the Government has relaxed planning laws." The NPPF was fundamentally a consolidation of guidance. It retains both the primacy of the development plan and a presumption in favour of development. It places greater emphasis on development where development plans are absent, silent or out-of-date, and where a LPA has no short-term supply of housing, but development still has to be sustainable. The questions posed in the programme are around why developments are being forced upon unsuspecting councils and communities, but the real question (as I said to my wife) is why LPAs do not have the development plans in place that would allow greater local control.

As another example, it was also stated in Wednesday's introduction that "across the UK there are 60,000 acres of derelict land that could accommodate 100,000 new homes." What also needs to be said is that, by common consensus, the country needs well over 200,000 new homes every year to house the growing population. Greenfield sites will have to be developed. That is simple fact and yet, by making reference to "cheaper" greenfield land (I will not get into development economics here, but suffice to say that that is gross simplification) that "appeals not just to the eye, but also to the pockets of developers", the balance of the programme is distorted from the outset.

I actually felt sufficiently compelled to look up the BBC Trust's guidelines on editorial content. Some extracts:

Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.  We are committed to achieving the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly and materially misleading our audiences.

Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences.  We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented.  We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.

We seek to report stories of significance to our audiences.  We will be rigorous in establishing the truth of the story and well informed when explaining it.

Our output will be based on fairness, openness, honesty and straight dealing.

A degree of sensationalism should, of course, be expected. Planning is sexy to those of us who know and love it, but I can see the need to 'sex it up' to generate public interest (alert - tongue in cheek). There's generating public interest though and acting in the public interest. The following are also extracts from the programme's introduction...

"Planning battles are raging across Britain."

"Developers are cashing in."

"Objectors are going to war."

 Deciding who wins are Britain's planners."

Impartial? Fair? Rigorous? Open-minded?

The programme is obviously enjoyable and the human interest and drama at the heart of every planning application does make for compelling viewing. I cannot help but feel though that it could, and probably should, offer more. There is a consensus across the political spectrum that the country needs new homes so the BBC would not be acting impartially for this to be the programme's starting point. The opportunity that the programme misses is to make the need for new homes a national rather than a local issue. More than that is the concern that by presenting the question of new development as us versus them the programme perpetuates what is already too much of an adversarial system.

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