Griff Rhys Jones is well known for his dry and occasionally caustic wit. But if there's one subject of which the comedian and presenter struggles to see the funny side, it's the way many towns and cities are being developed without the proper involvement of communities.
Jones, whose comments opposing the introduction of the mansion tax caused a stir last month, has been president for the past three years of Civic Voice, a charity that represents civic societies and other local community groups in England that are trying to make their areas more attractive places to live in. Now, ahead of next year's general election, Jones is leading Civic Voice's call for more opportunities for communities to shape the places where they live and more powers to permit the types of development they would like to see.
Jones has been active in trying to preserve the unique character of his own neighbourhood of Fitzrovia, an area just north of London's West End that includes expensive private housing, social housing, student accommodation and a thriving business community. All too often, such communities are placed at risk by legislation and decision-making that place commercial interests above the needs of local residents, Jones says. "The Treasury has worked out that one of the major drivers of employment is development," he says. "It believes we can build our way out of recession." But he says that communities need to be wary of people "who come with big plans and big commercial interests".
Jones says: "Britain has suffered from misguided planning over the past 100 years. There has been a lot of utopian thinking, and the trouble with utopian thinkers is that they tend to be quite autocratic about what they want. We want to include people."
According to Jones, communities need to learn the lessons of the past and stand their ground when they disagree with developments. "If the civic movement had allowed the planners to put a six-lane highway down Tottenham Court Road in central London, we would have a situation like those in Leeds and Glasgow, where motorways have been driven into the centre of cities and made them into 20th-century car ghettos," he says.
The Localism Act, passed three years ago, includes a number of measures that give communities a greater say over developments in their areas. Jones sees the powers as useful, but questions the motives behind some of the legislation, such as the creation of neighbourhood plans. "The government hopes that by putting together local neighbourhood plans it will stop the argy-bargy that comes with each tiny change," he says. "I worry that much of the localism initiative is trying to win over the Tory shires and conservation-minded voters, but also to please the Treasury by trying to corral the opposition into a single plan."
But he says that the best way to determine whether the act does genuinely give communities the power to decide what developments should be permitted is for residents and community groups to use it.
Civic societies have something of a reputation for being dominated by curmudgeonly older residents resistant to change. But Jones believes that many of these perceived "dry old sticks" are doing good by looking at planning applications and using the law. "If they don't object to air-conditioning units going on the front of Georgian buildings, then they go on," he says.
But he acknowledges that such groups need to embrace change and not just resist it. "As amenity people, we have a lot on our side," he says. "But we will get our voice together only if we can involve and recruit more people. In order to do that, we must be more fun. We have to look at amenity and civic societies as societies that don't meet only to argue but also to explore, understand and enjoy."