Staff reporters

22 March 2013 – In a vindication of those who believe that the  built environment is the most exciting thing since organic wholemeal sliced bread – not to mention the biggest and most important place where climate action will intersect with we humans – the UK has come up with fantastic new theme for reality television: town planning.

With episodes that include the dilemmas such as  whether to allow solar roof panels in an historic precinct and bio-diversity issues, this is welcome news in transforming the image of a profession once considered yawningly boring, but in fact one the most  important we have.

According to an article in Atlantic Cities, this week, a new BBC documentary series The Planners is “almost racy”, reports Feargus O’Sullivan.

The series sets itself up to follow municipal planners across the country, recording largely civil, occasionally bleep-filled exchanges between officials and objectors.

Set in three carefully chosen, photogenic spots– medieval Chester, winsomely pretty Gloucestershire and the relatively wild Scottish Borders – it’s partly bucolic downtime escapism and partly a sidelong look at the state of Britain today. And yes, it’s actually fascinating.”

I have a low excitement threshold, but I was close to feeling nail-biting tension waiting to discover if 87-year-old Mary Yeats will be able to prevent her neighbor’s light-hogging new extension (she isn’t, alas) or whether or not HR consultant Geraldine Beatty will be allowed to ruin her Regency house’s front garden with a parking space (she won’t, thank god).

And while watching suburbanites hunting for officially protected great crested newts makes for tame viewing, the real sense of guilt and self-doubt these campaigners show when they fail to stop building over pond-filled fields is human and touching.

For American planners, some of the case studies might seem exotic. Two charming retired doctors in Chester, for example, want to cover their roof with solar panels they laughingly admit they’ll not live long enough to profit from.

The problem is that the view over their house, beneath the city’s medieval ramparts, is one of the city’s main tourist money shots, an inland sea of mellow, weathered slate whose prettiness will be little enhanced by a shiny new silicon coating.

Elsewhere, there’s the youngish squire of an ancient manor house, who wants to build a wedding venue in its grounds, the only scheme he thinks can earn enough cash to keep his handsome but peeling old pile within the family.?”

It’s the economy, stupid.

As in Australia, in particular the major cities, the issue of housing and density and its tradeoff with economic imperatives are starting to assert themselves in a post GFC world.

In NSW the O’Farrell government has made it clear it sees the property industry, and the residential development industry in particular, as key to economic activity and health.

In the UK, The Planners “documents a major shift in Britain”, the article says.

The country’s economy is still flailing, and the government is trying to kick-start it with construction, relaxing planning laws and pressuring local authorities to green light pretty much anything. In a crowded country hungry for new housing, once taboo land parcels are now being paved over. As one planner in the program puts it:

Once it was a case of whether a project was good enough to be allowed. Now we’re asking if it’s really bad enough to be refused.

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