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The political ideology that public welfare can best be protected by individuals acting in their own self interest has become popular in some government circles. Yet the surrender of professional judgement to the unguided forces of the market undermines the whole basis of professionalism, service to the public.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in urban planning. To what extent should the shape of our cities be left to the market to decide and to what extent should planners intervene to ensure some order and equity and environmental protection in the process? Advocates of market forces tend to contest government planning yet planners see their role as applying their expertise to shaping urban areas in a way that will maximise welfare.
Justice Paul Stein, formerly of the NSW Land and Environment Court, and currently a judge in the NSW Court of Appeal, argues that in the 1990s too many politicians and developers see planning as getting in the way. Speaking at an urban planning conference "Renewing Australian Planning" held at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra recently he argued that governments were allowing the market to regulate rather than the statutory planning system.
There is "a sense of virtually never saying 'no' to a proposal, however irrational or environmentally damaging it might be. Controversial proposals are massaged, coerced or 'mediated' through to a 'yes'-what politicians like to call a 'win-win' situation, (usually a lose-lose position for the environment)," Stein argued. He gave various examples of how planning instruments had been circumvented and overridden by government legislation, a practice that he claimed damaged "the delicate balance between the legislature, executive and judiciary."
The prevailing mood of economic rationalism has undermined the role of planning professionals. "If developers need planners at all in 1998, they need only tame ones," said Stein. He pointed out that the recommendations of planners were frequently ignored by local councils and private consultant planners were "at the mercy of their clients, who are prepared to shop around until they find a planner to do their will."
Peter Self, an emeritus professor from ANU, spoke at the same conference of how planning professionals, in their efforts to find a niche for themselves, had been too willing to serve whatever political masters came along. As a result the planning profession seems to be at a turning point similar to that faced by the engineering profession.
Both engineers and planners are confronting some difficult questions. Does professionalism equate with giving competent technical advice to one's employer or client or does it require exercising professional judgement in the interests of the community? To what extent should professionals be willing to speak out publicly in support of their professional judgement when it conflicts with the developers who pay their wages?
"Planning is in danger of degenerating simply into a technique which can be used to support almost any organisation or interest", warned Self. "The contribution of professional planners has been downgraded, and planning decisions made increasingly on the basis of developers' pressures or political opportunism rather than reasoned professional analysis."
Has economic rationalism also undermined the role that citizens can play in urban planning decisions? The attempted introduction of competition into planning decisions appears to have reduced the role of public participation. Justice Stein gave the example of amendments to the EPA Act in NSW which he claims will "significantly reduce community rights in the decision-making process... a testament to the fact that some bureaucrats and politicians regard public participation as nothing more than a nuisance which slows 'development'."
Some engineers may well applaud the diminution of public participation in development decisions, having experienced delays in their own projects because of it, but is the market a good substitute? There is abundant evidence that unregulated development protects neither the environment nor community values. The active participation of the community and relevant professions is crucial to ensuring that development is in the interests of everyone, not just those who will make a profit from it.