Multi Functional Landscapes & Big Society

‘The more that powerful groups of humans value a particular service, the more likely they are to drive a landscape toward monofunctionality. Relatively monofunctional landscapes will require high levels of human input to continue delivering their values and functions and it is likely that a completely monofunctional landscape will cease to be sustainable and will eventually require remediation. Hence, from the point of view of public policy, it will normally be desirable to seek a degree of multifunctionality in all cultural landscapes, and to achieve high levels throughout much of our green infrastructure’

Paul Selman – Planning for landscape multifunctionality

‘Localism’ and the ‘Big Society’ have become buzzwords that raise many hackles now, evoking much disdain each and every time the word is mentioned even by many who actually quite like the ideals. But their association with flagship UK coalition government policies and the subsequent rhetoric from civil servants, the media and ‘think tanks’ have rapidly altered the ideals to a state where it cannot fit because of a lack of clear understanding and an inability to fully grasp the true meaning. But many centralised organisations are fully aware of what is really required and fearful of the diminishing power that needs to be relinquished to set those ideals in action.

Is it true that the UK policy makers including the NGOs’ viewpoint is now firmly entrenched in the basic assumption that the majority of people are stupid? If so isn’t this one of the surest signs of a failure to communicate with people. The evidence to suggest that UK politicians, particularly ministers are not only blind to the thinking of the common people, (but worse use the media as their source of information and as a springboard for policy decision who are hardly representative either), is strong, but the evidence to suggest that civil service and NGOs further down the line believe that ‘common people’ are unable to manage their own community and landscape is overwhelming.

But the UK is lucky, if you were to simply hand over control of many land use and development issues to the local community, multi functional and sustainable land management would be achieved much more rapidly.

Take any community, based on parish boundaries, (which are still the best geographical boundaries available to determine a community and thus a local landscape), you will find a team of highly competent, highly knowledgeable and deeply passionate people who more than adequately possess the skills to not only discover the needs of local land use but are actually able to implement it also. I have heard it said that the blogging phenomena is due to a surplus of newly educated people with something to say – this is sheer rot; you go to any community urban and rural in the UK and the sheer weight of knowledge with regards earth and social sciences related to that local community is enormous.

On twitter, reaction to the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was swift and contained within the #NPPF tweets was one that highlighted the biggest problem now facing policy makers. The tweet concerned has been deleted, but it was a passionate sentence suggesting that the idea to allow local communities to determine land use outcomes was daft because locals are simply ill qualified to decide.  The original tweet was far more offensive. It proved the fact that the myriad of interested quangos, national and local, civil servants, media, and NGOs in the UK system who have settled cosily into a top down approach between the policy makers and the people, will not relinquish their power easily.

This belief that local democracy cannot work or is subject to easy corruption is deeply flawed. The existing alternatives are hardly good examples. Those with a ‘conservation’ mindset need not panic that local communities are full of golf playing climate change deniers who seek nothing more in life than a landscape of red brick bungalows. And those who believe passionately in development need not be concerned that local communities will be full of people who will lie down in front of a bulldozer to save an ant’s nest.

The changing of a mindset by these organisations and individuals, this plethora of consultants and experts needs to change. A bottom up approach does not alter their importance and relevance; in fact it may well empower those with real knowledge even more so.

Therefore the UK has the means and the infrastructure to provide all the tools for a community to truly implement progressive sustainable land use. Those with knowledge within NGOs and Quangos are vital to help steer a course. Social media and the internet as a whole, particularly the forums, have a huge role to play and as such the skills of PR are also vital.  Even the publishers of endless glossy brochures which now struggle not to plagiarise from a finite source of ‘sustainable’ land use sound bites, have a role to play in introducing case study after case study to hone progression across the UK.

The huge amount of money saved by effectively removing half of the paperwork, policy meeting time etc., by removing the top down strand that currently exists, which always inevitably heads back up the ladder for a second round, would be enormous.

The sheer costs involved of a ‘U turn’ by government are what are shameful; not the U turn itself.

And policy meeting after policy meeting, discussing how not to reinvent the wheel is again costly, particularly as it takes up the time of people who could be out there on the ground aiding communities to realise sustainable land use and all of its benefits.

On perusal of the NPPF, one would believe I fully condone it in what I write, but it has several flaws and one major one: The existing planning laws are over bureaucratic and were hardly easy to define, but many of the elements relating to natural and cultural heritage contained within the PPS’s are based on UK and EU laws, directives and ratified conventions, which were watered down to fit but were still there. The draft NPPF generally ignores these laws by assuming that outside of designated land development takes precedence and by doing so it appears nothing short of a list of suggestions by interested parties lucky enough to gain the ear of those who drafted the document, with the word sustainable added at every opportunity allowed by a good ‘Microsoft grammar checker’. The result is over simplification which further complicates in favour of centralised ideals and economics.

Planning is by default a complex profession, the more the laws are twisted or ignored in favour of centralised ideals the more the planner is disenfranchised and thus finds difficulty in ensuring their work is done. If the planner takes their rightful place in amongst the community they are there to serve, with the relevant laws on their lap and full knowledge of the meaning of sustainable, together with the assistance of all who have a specific interest then progress is inevitable.

The continuing refusal to acknowledge the attributes of professionals and practioners’ both private and public sector on the front line is a major stalling in progressive policies. Unions have perpetuated this by politicising issues which are not political.

‘Big society’ will only be achieved when the self emplaced hierarchy of policy makers learn to trust those who work day to day within a local community and the local community itself.


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