A corrupt system that affects us all

I am not suggesting your council will accept a bribe to nod through your rear extension...

Planning. Now there's a word that's out of fashion. There used to be a think-tank called Political and Economic Planning, founded in 1931. It changed its name in 1978 and I reckon those 47 years roughly cover the age of planning as a respectable political concept.

It reached its apogee in 1941 when Picture Post published "A Plan for Britain" which included "everybody [living] in cheerful, healthy conditions, which only proper planning can achieve". Today, you should have a strategy, vision or project, but you do not need a plan.

Is planning about to make a comeback? I do not mean in the sense of the government planning industry, but in the Picture Post sense of public authorities striving to give us cheerful, healthy conditions or, in the denser language now favoured, taking responsibility for the quality of communities. As a new report from Demos suggests - Future Planners: propositions for the next age of planning - we need to reinvent the role of planning.

I wonder if most Britons realise how corrupt our planning system has become. I am not suggesting your local council will accept a bribe to nod through your rear extension, but a giant supermarket is a different matter.

Under the iniquitous system the Conservatives introduced in 1990, applicants for planning permission can offer inducements to councils to make their proposal "acceptable in land-use terms". In theory, councils are allowed to make Sainsbury's or Tesco pay for road-widening so its lorries don't cause congestion or make Barratt Homes build a few affordable houses so its new estate doesn't create an executive ghetto. In practice, commercial interests have paid for schools, fire stations, cricket pavilions, and general high-street facelifts, and have sometimes just handed over cash. They are called "planning gain" agreements and most have nothing to do with the development in question. As George Monbiot has put it, the public interest is being auctioned to the highest bidder. It took Labour until 2005 to issue a circular saying that "planning permission may not be bought and sold". Since agreements are usually made in secret, we cannot be certain councils have paid attention.

If you wonder why commercial chains have been allowed to take over our towns and cities, planning gain is a big part of the explanation. Even if councils have the power to resist the big guns - and, as far as planning law is concerned, a shop is a shop, regardless of who owns it - most do not have the will, since they raise about £1bn a year from planning gain.

Red Essex

I happen, unfashionably and quietly, to live in Loughton, Essex. Last year, our local council turned down an application from Costa Coffee. The London Evening Standard compared it to the storming of the Winter Palace, with smart-alec comments about how we Loughtonians were normally too busy with patio extensions to mount an uprising. I was keenly watching the local Tube station for Lenin's arrival. Unfortunately, the decision was overturned on appeal before he got here. The Bolsheviks didn't have to worry about the planning inspectorate.

The latest government idea, from a Treasury report by the economist Kate Barker - Barker Review of Land Use Planning - is that all developers should pay a standard rate of, say, 20 per cent of the enhanced value of land that gets planning permission. Since this sounds like a land tax - and since many big companies oppose it - I am instinctively in favour. But I am uneasy about mixing up planning with revenue raising. I would like my local council to consider whether a new supermarket is a good or bad thing without any other considerations in mind.

Barker sees her "planning gain supplement" as a way of speeding up approvals. She wants to promote a "positive planning culture" so that applications go through except when there is a "good reason to believe costs outweigh benefits". She means we should normally let developers have their way and talks about "the efficient use of land". But much as I appreciate the need for new homes, I would like to leave a bit of inefficient land around. It is the sort of scrubby ground on the urban fringes where children can run around adventurously and work off a bit of fat, instead of being marched to some supervised and sanitised playground.

In other words, I don't want planning to be dominated by economists' slide rules. Demos wants to "reinvest" council planners with public trust, and they will only get that if they can balance economic with social and environmental benefits. As things stand, they lack the power and status to be much more than stereotyped bureaucrats.

Let's start with the name. Any council recruitment officer will tell you that nobody wants to be a planner. Try calling them "local visionaries" instead.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack