The practice of ‘planning communications’ is, broadly, the process by which developers consult local people about new development proposals and then put together a case to present to decision makers at the planning authority. In the best cases, there is a real element of community-led design input. In some cases, it primarily involves countering the arguments of vocal nimbys to make sure a balanced view is heard. There are a bunch of specialist PR agencies who work for developers to do this – including, for transparency, the one I work for.
A new paper from “urbanist” Anna Minton purports to show how planning communications and PR is “undermining democracy” and causing various terrible things to happen.
You can read the original on her website, but, to summarise: anyone with a placard is a righteous tribune of the people; anyone who ever wanted anything to be changed or built anywhere is some kind a demoniacal villain.
Firstly, although the paper claims to be about how lobbyists work to influence the planning process, she actually doesn’t seriously address this issue. As I noted in my other reviews, she’s curiously unable to stick to any given subject, so most of the paper is given over to complaining (more or less copy-and-pasted from her previous works) about how despicably badly Southwark, Newham, and Liverpool councils treated their tenants and residents during grand redevelopment schemes. It actually doesn’t take any convincing to make Labour councils behave like bastards, and if lobbyists were responsible Minton doesn’t mention it.
There’s just zero in the way of serious investigation or facts here. She makes really serious accusations – that lobbyists are planted in planning meetings to heckle the public, and impersonate journalists on the telephone. Her most bizarre claim is that lobbyists somehow get entire slates elected to councils and then pack the development control committee and cabinet. I’m pretty confident in saying that this never happened, and Minton only asserts it without proof. Despite it being “ubiquitous”, she admits that it is “difficult to document”. She doesn’t even try. She hints at a problem with conflicts of interest – the development control committee having personal stakes in developments and councillors and council staff being given jobs with local developers. And yet, for no other reason than because she is the world’s laziest investigator, she doesn’t even try to find out or quantify how often it happens or where.
She accuses developers and their PR consultants of “astroturfing”, although this doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. Astroturfing, in the jargon, is creating a fraudulent grassroots campaign to make something look like it has real support, such as by using sockpuppets – false identities or unreal people – as supporters. But that’s not what is happening in the example she gives. The Campaign for High Speed Rail is supported by real, named businesses and individuals, including people at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Minton may not agree with them, but they are actually-existing humans. Forming an organisation to promote a common voice isn’t the “abuse of the democratic system” – it’s practically the definition of a democratic system.
Most of the rest of Minton’s paper just uses increasingly bizarre non-arguments to discredit developers.
The first, is to attempt to associate the issue with causes that are already reviled by her target audience – referencing various bête noirs of Guardian readers even if the reference makes no sense. So planning communications is like tax avoidance (insofar as it is not illegal but still wrong); it’s like Big Tobacco (insofar as they both hire PR companies); it’s like NHS reform (insofar as a former employee of a PR company also worked for the think-tank Reform); it’s like the Tea Party (insofar as… actually, she doesn’t even try to make that make sense). The association fallacy at it’s most tenuous and transparent.
She also has an weird problem with PR consultants using military metaphors, describing it as “extreme” language and “intimidation and threats”. The language under question is the following quote from a Radio 4 interview: “You’ve got to fight them on every street corner…. You can’t just sit in your fortress and watch the opponents run around doing what they like.” She seems to think that they were being literal. All political campaigns use military metaphors: the ground war and the air war. This whole point is just dumb.
And yet this isn’t even Minton’s most stupid argument. She keeps claiming (it’s actually the first subtitle in the paper) that lobbyists want to “shit up” their opponents. That has to be a typo Minton or her researcher has made somewhere along the line. When she asks the man who apparently said it he replies, “I literally can’t remember what you’re talking about.” Of course he can’t: nobody has ever used the phrase “shit them up”, even on the internet, where the only uses that aren’t typos seem to be this paper and one piece of teenage X-men fanfic. He probably said “shut them up”, because that makes sense. Minton based her key argument on a typo in her notes.
The job of local planning authorities is to balance interests: in most cases there is no single identifiable “public interest”. Minton always sides with the people with placards, whether they are social housing tenants decanted cruelly by their Labour councils, or rich white folks in Devon, Grampian, or the Chilterns who are having their country views ruined by houses/railways/a golf course. For Minton, the very presence of a banner and a campaign group is indication enough of their righteousness. She quotes them uncritically – the Southwark Notes campaign group is the word of truth, for Minton. Not that I want to defend Southwark’s Labour council, but this isn’t even competent journalism, let alone a serious report.
Because of course Manchester businesses want a new rail line; of course there are people in Devon who are suffering from a housing shortage; of course there are people in Aberdeen who think that a fancy golf club is going to bring in tourist money; of course a lot of people want a convenient supermarket nearby. Her weird Manichean view of the world doesn’t admit that all these people are perfectly allowed to put their case, and the “public interest” lies in the balance of these opinions – not necessarily kowtowing to noisy minorities.