Following the Plan

When working alone, it’s often simple and straightforward to keep track of the things to be done, and how, in your head. As soon as there’s a team effort involved, things are not so simple. Does everyone share the same understanding of the what, and the how? Almost certainly not! It seems sensible to set the task out in a plan. Setting out aims, roles, resources, methods, the expected sequence of events, review points and so on just seems like common sense – doesn’t it? This blog is a reflection on where such logic led me, and many fellow travellers, over the years. Spoiler alert – it has not gone smoothly…..

I recently came across an essay, by Mark Toogood, discussing Frank Fraser Darling’s West Highland Survey1. A passing comment in this notes that: “…both (Tom) Johnston and Darling (as well as most senior actors in state ecology in Britain) held integrated planning models in high regard…”. I’ve no reason to doubt this, but I now wonder what Johnston and Darling, individually or together, thought this to mean. Another giant of their generation, Max Nicholson (who helped found the Nature Conservancy and led the organisation as Director General from 1952 to 1966) argued vociferously for a National (economic) Plan from the 1930s onwards. Nicholson joined the Civil Service in 1940 and is said to have accompanied Winston Churchill to the Yalta and Potsdam conferences which set the scene for post-war reconstruction. He was then Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, from 1945 to 1952. The end of the War was the trigger for rapid social and political change, creating not only the welfare state, free secondary education, nationalisation of railways, coal mining and electricity generation, but also a new approach to farming support, National Parks (but not in Scotland), the Nature Conservancy and a development planning system. Expectations and optimism seem to have been high.

Nicholson’s 1967 polemic ‘The System – the misgovernment of modern Britain2, laments the subsequent failings of successive post-war governments, arguing: ‘The key to co-ordination and to getting the best results with the highest morale is a clearly thought-out plan, based on a complete and sound appreciation of the assembled facts, fully and simply explained to all whose efforts are essential to its fulfilment.’ (p420) .

Contemporaneous with the West Highland Survey, an interdepartmental committee of the Scottish Office reviewed ‘Highland Development’3, leading later to a White Paper4 recommending establishment of the Highland Panel. The 1964 Highland Panel report ‘Land Use in the Highlands and Islands’5 highlights the Island of Mull as a locality requiring urgent attention. The Labour government elected later that year established the Highlands and Islands Development Board.  The Board prepared “comprehensive development plans” for Strath of Kildonan and for the Island of Mull6. These documents begin to realise the limitations of proposals which are unable to reconcile the views of different stakeholders. HIDB went on to sponsor a ‘Mull Development Committee’, which sat uneasily with the various public bodies, elected representatives and other powerful interests and was eventually disbanded.

As a student in the mid 1970s I studied ecology and ‘rural planning’, going on to research land management in the Island of Mull7 . I investigated Mull as an ecological and economic system, framing an exploration of the interactions between land, people and the panoply of public bodies influencing land management. It became clear that no single plan document could realistically provide a foundation for co-ordination along the lines envisaged by Nicholson, even in such a limited geographical area. Encouraged by sceptical critiques8, I began to think of the word ‘plan’ more as a verb, rather than a noun.

As a junior official joining the Nature Conservancy Council in 1979, I found that plans were not much in evidence across the organisation. But public bodies through the 1980s and 1990s were increasingly challenged to demonstrate their effectiveness. Unexpectedly, for several years from 1995 I found myself Head of Corporate Planning for the recently formed Scottish Natural Heritage. Especially following the 1997 General Election landslide bringing Labour to power, we were pressed to adopt a managerial, delivery target-driven approach to our work, and plans were seen as key evidence of our credibility. In SNH, we had a three-year Corporate Plan and an annual work plan setting out the main work streams and budget allocations, broken down into directorate, team and individual job plans, reporting regularly on progress back up the line to senior management team and Board. The plan material was the foundation for reporting of progress and achievements in the Annual Report and Accounts. These plans, for people and resources, were perhaps the kind of thing Nicholson had in mind. Other public bodies had their own corresponding arrangements, but efforts to co-ordinate these never attracted sufficient priority; joint working was always an uphill struggle.

Meanwhile on the global stage, UN conferences in Helsinki (1972) and especially Rio (1992) led to the international Convention on Biological Diversity9. UK CBD commitments included the preparation of Species Action Plans (SAPs), Habitat Action Plans (HAPs) and Local Biodiversity Action Plans (LBAPs). An initial list of 577 priority species and 49 priority habitats signalled preparation of hundreds of SAPs and dozens of HAPs by the new Millennium. Their progress was to be monitored and reviewed; a massive commitment of expert effort. The priority lists were increased to 1149 species and 65 habitats, meanwhile public body budgets and staffing grew year-on-year increasing capacity for such work. Contrasting with corporate planning as above, this was a managerial approach comprising plans for wild species and habitats; but the absence of plan documents for the longer priority lists is a hint that practical limits had been breached10.

From 2010, incremental growth in public body budgets was abruptly reversed. Austerity policies drove year-on-year budget reductions and corresponding shrinkage in staffing. Even before these developments, the limitations of a plan-based managerial approach had become evident. Plan documentation usually lags behind events, and is often incomplete. The dream of accessible, easily digestible, yet comprehensive information was never realised. The idea of a plan (along the lines proposed by Nicholson) also implies a fantasy of control; the UK Government project management methodology adopted in the 1990s is called PRINCE – PRojects IN Controlled Environments11.  For a modest project within a single organisation such control over events might just about be credible, but not for real-world initiatives involving multiple interests and especially across organisations. Delivery of a pre-determined plan is never realistic, so practice must accommodate unexpected developments and reconcile diverse interests – whatever the theory might say.

Such a managerial plan-based approach is especially deficient when applied to natural systems. A contemporary strand of thinking promotes the idea of ‘rewilding’; this is defined in diverse ways, but at centre is the idea of letting go – the antithesis of managerialism. For example, Benedict Macdonald’s excellent new book ‘Rebirding12 highlights the shortcomings of prescriptive habitat management plans 13, preferring to ‘…let nature write the targets…’. A recent blog by Mark Fisher14 highlights the contradictions and absurdity emerging when such plans are put into practice.

Making plans for nature may indeed be a step too far, but I’m still left believing that some proportionate style of planning must facilitate people working together. For all our efforts and experience, we simply haven’t yet established what good practice should look like. Yet collective effort without co-ordination risks confusion and wasted effort. The UK’s biodiversity challenges cut across multiple interests and organisations, challenging the logic of methodical plan preparation and implementation. So, after the plan – what next?

  1. Mark Toogood (2017) Ecology and Rehabilitation – the West Highland Survey 1944-1955, chapter 6 in R. de Bont & J. Lachmund (eds.) Spatializing the History of Ecology. Routledge
  2. E.M.Nicholson (1967) The System: the misgovernment of modern Britain. Hodder and Stoughton
  3. Known as the Anderson Committee, this 1945 report was never published, but can be viewed in the National Records of Scotland, for example SEP12/94, AF62/2099 and HH36/22.
  4. A Programme of Highland Development 1950 Cmd. 7976. HMSO
  5. The Advisory Panel on the Highlands and Islands (1964) Land Use in the Highlands and Islands. HMSO
  6. HIDB (1973) Special Report 10: Island of Mull – survey and proposals for development
  7. A. Mowle (1981) The use of natural resources in the Scottish Highlands, with particular reference to the Island of Mull. PhD Thesis, University of Stirling
  8. For example, Aaron Wildavsky (1973) If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing. Policy Sciences Vol 4(2) pp127-153.
  9. See: https://www.cbd.int/history/
  10. See: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5705
  11. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRINCE2
  12. Benedict Macdonald (2019) Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds. Pelagic Publishing.
  13. Macdonald op cit see especially pp213-217.
  14. See: http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/articles/vanity.htm

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