Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Planning for privacy

Apologies to those who might have spotted this theme in earlier blogs but I don't think that the relationship between planning and privacy can be overstated - even if there might not be too many obvious things that can be done about the problems being caused (see blog on microhomes as one response). My undergraduate thesis (that came within one mark of a fail) was titled 'planning and privacy' and it is interesting to return to the subject nearly 40 years later. I could not have known the extent to which the 'profession' I was about to join would be dedicated to the job of providing people with privacy. Nor could I have known that, far from becoming an environmental professional I would turn out to be more of a pension provider - and one more successful in that regard than most of those plying the trade of financial advisers. Our collective energy has been spent trying to provide a home for every household that would embed a pension pot in its bricks and mortar and to act as a neighbour protection service by preventing overlooking, overshadowing or disturbance from any new developments that would reduce its value. That the supply of houses has been maintained below the level of demand (excluding the issues with the availability and cost of finance)has been blamed for the cost of houses that is seen to be a good thing by full members of the property owning democracy. Of course it is debatable the extent to which planners have been responsible for the shortfall or whether affordability is more to do with unequal distribution than any absolute shortage. I think that credit goes to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for promoting the concept of 'Lifetime Homes' designed so that the elderly can stay put and maintain their independence (close relation of privacy) into old age. At a recent workshop exploring the concept of 'caring environments' the convenor wondered whether we would learn by looking for examples of uncaring environments. This led to the subversive suggestion that in fact lifetime homes might be one component of uncaring environments and that the design professionals and the planning system should be looking at 'lifetime neighbourhoods'. These would comprise a mix of dwellings but including sufficient small dwellings to facilitate downsizing within the local area (I resist using the word community)as an attractive option rather than a move to sheltered accommodation or even nursing/care home due to need. There was also a suggestion that perhaps terraced housing (good in terms of energy efficiency and density) might be more conducive to caring and community than detached properties and high hedges, despite their larger pension pot. So are there any signs that planners are moving towards houses and housing layouts that would facilitate neighbourliness or are we still hostage to the obsession that bricks and mortar are the only safe investments for retirement and old age? If that is the case, then Government should be looking very hard for other ways to provide that security as, to do so, could have a liberating effect on the design of residential environments. And guess what? neighbourliness and inter-dependence and reduced privacy and social isolation might reduce the burden on the public purse of administering (child) care and nursing services. This is just one of many loops in the housing system, but one that will not turn into a virtuous circle while we, with the assistance of the planning system (and how many councillors would risk their seat on my hypothesis? - remembering that my student thesis nearly failed) cling so tenaciously to protecting indidual privacy.

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