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Everybody’s talking about planning

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about”, said Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about”.

Events in the last few weeks have catapulted planning and planners into media reports, social media threads and conversations around dinner tables across the country. And it all started in Oxford.

Protests arose last month in Oxford in response to a proposed plan by Oxford City Council to model Oxford’s future development on a concept known as the 15-minite city.

As part of its Local Plan 2040, Oxford City Council plans to install traffic filters on six roads in Oxford as part of a £6.5m trial, set to commence in 2024. Under these new filters, residents will be able to drive freely around their own neighbourhoods but will be fined up to £70 for driving into other neighbourhoods through the filters. The plan’s aim is to create neighbourhoods in Oxford where ‘essential’ facilities are accessible by a walking distance of up to 15 minutes. These facilities were determined by a 2022 civilian consultation of over 5,000 stakeholders.

The Council has asserted that the plan’s intent is not to coerce residents into staying in one neighbourhood, but to address ‘awful’ congestion in the city centre which it argues is making public transport in Oxford ‘unviable’. Others, however disagreed, including media personalities like Jordan Peterson who tweeted

“The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you're "allowed" to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea--and, make no mistake, it's part of a well-documented plan.”

Hysteria sprang out throughout the media and across the political spectrum with some inflammatory and outright incorrect interpretations of what exactly is meant by a 15-minute city, and which itself became a widely reported media story globally, with Bloomberg, the New York Times and NewsCom Australia weighing in on the controversy that had been generated in Oxford.

In the UK, the head of the government’s Office of Place attempted to clarify the concept and reframe the discussion around 15-minute cities. Writing in Conservative Home, Nicholas Boys Smith said

“15-minutes cities are not a socialist plot. They are a repackaging of a timeless, even a Scrutonian, ideal: of the need for home and for neighbourhood as we make our brief passage through the world. It is not ground that any wise political movement should cede to their opposition.”

While this debate was unfolding, West Oxfordshire District Council attracted people’s attention with its refusal to grant planning permission to celebrity motorist-turned-farmer Jeremy Clarkson’s proposed restaurant on his farm in the Cotswolds. But this wasn’t any old planning application, which might in normal circumstances be ignored, or possibly debated and reported on by planning geeks. Instead, it was a key story line in the current season of “Clarkson’s Farm”, the most popular TV programme on Amazon prime last month.

In the first three episodes, viewers watched how Jeremy Clarkson tried to keep his farm afloat amidst the challenges of post-Brexit, post-pandemic farming. We saw the near loss of a small cow herd to TB, chickens under lockdown due to avian flu restrictions, and the continued reduction of government subsidy to meet these and other challenges.

Instead, government encouraged farmers to diversify their sources of revenue, and this led to a plan to establish a restaurant on Clarkson’s farm serving local produce and providing jobs and tourism to the local community.

The planning application for the restaurant is submitted to the Council, and in Episode 4 we witness the planning committee meeting, at which the application is – spoiler alert - refused. The reason given was non compliance withguidance for protecting areas of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

“Clarkson’s Farm” is an unusual if not unique form of streamed entertainment where reality TV meets farmers’ almanac meets celebrity image remaking – which delivers a certain “truth”, and in this case that's Jeremy Clarkson’s truth. Not everyone will sympathise with him and, indeed, some may well sympathise with the planning committee and local residents who objected to the application. But millions of people are feeling something, and talking about it with their families, friends and neighbours.

Will there be a “Clarkson effect “in planning? The timing for planning’s status uplift is ideal as the government’s consultation on the proposed National Planning Policy Framework closes and ministers begin to shape it into policy.

In the meantime, events in Oxford have inspired many conversations about what people value in their localities. This week YouGov published a poll showing that 62% of people in the UK would like to live in a 15-minute city. When asked what amenities are important to have within a 15-minute walk, transport, communications and healthcare came out on top:

“Around nine in ten believe that people should have a bus stop (90%), and a post box (87%) within a 15-minute walk of their home. Having medical facilities such as a pharmacy (85%) and a GP surgery (83%) should also be included in the target according to most Britons. However, less than half see the need for a shopping centre (28%), restaurant (38%) or hairdressers (46%) to be close by.”

These conversations are vital to healthy, community-led planning, and they will hopefully encourage people to be more vocal and engaged in their local communities.

And while the biggest beneficiary of “Clarkson’s Farm” may be Jeremy Clarkson, the programme has demonstrated to millions of viewers how important planning is to our lives and livelihoods. Will this lead to more people campaigning for inclusive and engaged planning in their local communities? Will young people be inspired to pursue careers in planning? And at the very least, will it lead to the planning reform that everyone craves?

Time will tell, but a renewed urgency and heightened level of debate is a positive for all of us.

Thanks, Oxford.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

7 March 2023


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