Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Planners is partly bucolic escapism and partly a sidelong look at the state of Britain today. And yes, it's actually fascinating.
Despite breakthrough international hits like Downton Abbey, many Americans struggle when they're placed on a diet of pure British television. One American friend of mine who lived here for a while complained that, after coming home through grey streets, she’d turn on the TV to find "there was always a documentary about starlings, or a reality TV show about waste disposal." She exaggerates, but this is still a country in love with the banal, a place that lures prime-time viewers with breathlessly announced live footage of bluetit fledglings where the most talked-of recent show is about baking. Set against the studied modesty of this cultural backdrop, new BBC documentary series The Planners is almost racy.
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.
But beyond the loving footage of hedgerows and old stone, The Planners also documents a major shift in Britain. 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.
If the anecdotal evidence The Planners offers is accurate, it seems that British officials are sticking to their guns when it comes to preserving the architectural character of towns, but making up for it by concreting over the countryside. After watching them being roundly ignored by elected politicians, I’m loath to take the planners themselves to task for this. If the series shows anything clearly, it’s how little power they really have.