Witchfinders general

If town planners had their wicked way, all architects would be burned at the stake. Sutherland Lyall asks how these evil-doers have managed to wield such power and intimidation with no degree of responsibility for so long, and thinks it’s about time it wa

With the current spate of flash restaurants and shops, a new generation of designers is discovering the planning system and the people who run it. I was going to say wankers instead of people but at least the latter are very vaguely half-involved in some sort of creative process.

In my experience planners tend to be sad persons who could get jobs in neither the prison service nor the DSS benefits investigations unit. They are the sort of people who, come the invasion, queue up to be concentration camp guards and denounce neighbours for smiling in the street.

None of them has more than vestigial training in matters visual and none would want it because of the elitism involved in knowing quite a lot about what you’re talking about. This is because planning “theory” is light on thought and experience and heavy on right-on grass-rootism, and because planners put it about that they represent the common man.

Planners are, along with their hero Retroprince Charles, all members of the Order of the Flying Ducks whose secret motto is “Client? Look little people, we know what we like and, call it crap for all you like, you’ll bloody well design it like that.” And if you want to keep working you daren’t say a thing about it in the media.

Architects, of course, have put up with the taste police since the late Forties, when the Town and Country Act was passed. The amusing thing is that it was a bunch of architects who persuaded the government of the day that the act would make a better Britain. And for a while, when planners were all first trained as architects and there was a degree of solidarity in the profession, things didn’t appear, so it’s claimed, to be bad.

During the past couple of decades, as few architects have gone into planning, things have got seriously out of order, and the aforesaid sad gits, the town planners, have become monstrously overbearing about “design” – despite occasional weak ministerial attempts to curb them. Years ago, when Michael Heseltine put out such an order limiting the activities of aesthetic policemen, I was calmly informed by a senior local authority planner that he proposed to ignore it completely – as his fellows have continued to do ever since.

There has never been any convincing demonstration that the act has made anything better for anybody apart from the planners. Their standard justification is: “You should see the stuff people try to get past us. If you could see it you’d be grateful to us.”

Some planning authorities now have “design” sub-departments to help architects crazed by too many avant garde aesthetics. They are staffed by non-designers with responsibility to nobody. You should see the stuff they try to force on designers.

And another thing…

I’ve never quite understood what the Design Council was about – apart from providing employment to that wonderful old buccaneer, director Paul Reilly. Oh, and what was then a great magazine, Design. And occasionally nice exhibitions. But even in those days it was the man, the mag and the gallery, not the institution, that counted, and its recent semi-demise seemed like a good idea – apart from the inevitable sackings. What was fundamentally wrong with it was the notion that civil servants could somehow operate successfully and convincingly in the world of commerce. As a missionary operation it was patently a long-running disaster.

Recently, I wept tears at the debacle of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Consultancy Brokerage Service. Well, actually I didn’t because, pace the few people who did, anybody who gets involved with the DTI on a cash-paying basis needs to have his or her head examined.

So what does this say about Design Council 95? This time round it’s even less clear what it’s for and what it can do. Don’t all write in because everything I’ve read so far from and about it seems to amount to very mediocre intentions and not much wherewithal to carry them out. And it’s still under the thumb of the DTI, most recently famous for its commercial nous in getting the CBS up and not running.

With a bit of luck the Government will decide to privatise the council, sell it off with a massive lump sum subsidy for a quid to a consortium headed by somebody like my good self and we can quietly close it down for ever. You’ll be eternally grateful and you’ll never even notice.

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