In praise of public servants

David Madden

On Monday evening I had the pleasure of attending the London Planning Awards at City Hall.

A great event celebrating the best planning projects in the city, from new schemes like One New Change – the breath-taking retail and office development near St Paul’s, colloquially known as the Stealth Bomber – to beautiful new public spaces like McMillan Park in Lewisham.

The Awards, now in their ninth year, were very well attended, not least by public servants. The focus of attention as always was the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who rattled through the awards ceremony with his trademark heady mix of bluster and deceptive acuity. But there were many less well-known public servants in attendance and one in particular was rightly recognised for the years of service he has given.

Giles Dolphin, Assistant Director of Planning at the Greater London Authority, is retiring and he received a lifetime achievement award, perhaps for being able to work effectively under both Boris and Ken. In fact, Mr Dolphin developed a very strong reputation, both amongst planning officers in the London Boroughs and those involved in the development industry for his pragmatism, even handedness and genuine desire to do the best he could for London.

Many years ago a rather naïve youngish communications consultant, trying to fathom the labyrinthine workings of the planning system in London, phoned Giles Dolphin asking for a layman’s explanation of the then Mayor’s role in the planning process. Instead of directing the enquirer to an underling or the GLA website, he very happily spent a good ten or fifteen minutes going through the process in clear and straightforward terms. He did what any good public servant would do, and what many do day in and day out – he helped someone to understand the system that has been put in place for the public’s benefit.

Public servants are regularly given a hard time and those working in planning can get a lot more stick than others. If you’re a hard-pressed local authority planning officer you never know whether the next phone call is going to be from the Chair of the local residents association screaming in your left ear about inappropriate development in their back yard, or the planning consultant demanding an immediate response to his or her latest request for a pre-app meeting in your right. And when you take a decision, you’re almost guaranteed to have alienated or enraged someone.

So, the fact that people choose to do these jobs in the first place is pretty amazing and actually something we should be grateful for. After all, without our councils’ planning departments and hard pressed officers, we wouldn’t have the wonderful new projects or beautifully refurbished old buildings being celebrated on Monday evening.

I’ve never forgotten the kindness and patience Giles Dolphin demonstrated on the phone to me all those years ago and I hope he enjoys a long and fruitful retirement.

As an aside, my favourite contender at the Planning Awards was The Granary at King’s Cross, a wonderful fusion of Victorian industrial architecture and lightweight modern design, which also won the Mayor’s special award for planning excellence. Great minds think alike, evidently!

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