A version of this article appeared in The Planner magazine (the RTPI’s business monthly magazine for planning professionals), February 2017.
The Planning Under Pressure (The Planner, December 2016) article reflected how downtrodden many in the planning profession feel. The finger of blame is pointed at Government for perpetual changes to the system, at politicians who see planning as a barrier to growth, at an increasingly adversarial culture, and at funding cuts.
The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has its “Proud of Planning” campaign, but we need to avoid an “us-against-the-world” mentality, which blames others. It is now time for the planning profession to look at itself honestly and take action on what it can do positively and proactively to change.
First, we should halt the “woe-is-me” narrative. Yes, resources are tight, and the political narrative can be unhelpful, but these issues are not unique to planning. Looking back through to a supposed past golden era is unhelpful. Now is the time for innovation and a positive forward-looking mind-set.
Second, we should stop using impenetrable jargon, and start communicating in a way people understand. We should embrace social media. Look at Jen Keesmaat, the Chief Planner of Toronto with over 34,000 Twitter followers and a blog exploring issues in more detail. Too many local plans are long, boring documents that could apply to anywhere. Instead they should set out a clear, compelling and distinctive vision for how a place will develop and change.
Third, we should take seriously and respond constructively to criticisms about commercial awareness and attitudes to growth. We must challenge the negative and jaundiced views of developers that some planners still hold. Sufficient weight must be given to the economic benefits of development as well as negative environmental impacts. We all should increase our commercial understanding.
Fourth, we need to be more politically aware. Local planning authorities are politically led organisations. Planners need to listen better to what Councillors or Ministers want to achieve and to seek a way to do so. Developers and consultants could do more to understand political priorities. All of us have a responsibility to build a less adversarial culture in planning.
Fifth, we must reduce the costs and complexities that businesses and people face in navigating the planning system. Whilst these often result from statutory requirements, we should look locally at what can be simplified.
Finally, we need to be more pragmatic and confident. I once asked a Council Chief Planner how they had put a local plan in place quickly when so many others have failed to produce up-to-date plans. His response was, “well, we just got on with it”.
Let’s regain our confidence as a profession, be more can-do, politically and commercially aware, and communicate and engage with people in new ways. Most of all we need to get on with it, and show the will and imagination to make a difference.