Breaking barriers and engaging with future planners

A recent survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in July 2021 aimed to gauge UK public awareness of the planning profession. The results suggested a significant disconnect between the public perception of planning, the scope of professions in the industry and the impact that planning has on society.

While 73% of respondents claimed to understand the job description of planners, only 32% recognised that planning can support future recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 37% believed that planning can influence the wider issues of climate change and the environment.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI called the results ‘shocking’. However, they are perhaps the consequence of inclusivity challenges that the planning sector has failed to address for a number of decades.

Equality in the planning sector

Historically, the profession has been notorious for being dominated by middle-aged and older men. While an increasing number of younger women joined the profession in the 1990s and 2000s, recent years have seen a reversing trend away from the progress made towards gender equality in the sector.

Likewise, the number of overall students choosing to embark on planning-related degrees has remained low, despite there being a high demand for planning professionals. A town planning degree is in the top four postgraduate subjects for employability within six months of graduation and poses a respectable average starting salary, suggesting young people are being deterred for reasons beyond career motivations.

Overcoming the obstacles

So why are young people so seemingly disengaged with planning and how can barriers be broken?

Helen Hayes, a former town planner and the current Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, believes one glaring issue is the urgent need for a more diverse workforce in the profession. It is not just about needing an influx of numbers; people entering the profession need to be from all sections of society.

Only an estimated 2% of UK town planning officers are under 25 and just 19% are aged 25-34. As for ethnicity, 97% of planning officers are white.

Moreover, the 2020 RTPI Women and Planning research paper found that the majority of female respondents had faced gender related barriers to professional advancement in planning, and that workplaces overwhelmingly reflect ‘masculine’ cultures and norms of behaviour.

In recent years, the RTPI has committed to a long-term strategy to address diversity issues and entered a partnership with the BAME Planners Network. Initiatives such as these are welcomed but it is argued that they need to be supported by educational measures in diverse schools and universities.

In a 2015 issue of The Planner magazine, young professionals working in the industry were asked for their views of how to successfully engage young people with the planning profession. An obvious theme was to improve young people’s understanding of planning as a known career –  teaching them to associate it with places, shaping the everyday and solving commonplace issues.

Raising awareness: not just home extensions

Those within the industry believe that there is a concerning lack of awareness of how planning as a discipline is related to a wide remit of shared issues in society, from building valued places to solving the housing crisis and tackling climate change. “Planning needs to be properly championed. Ask a young person about what planning means and they think about home extensions and dormer windows”, says Rupy Sandhu, one of the young planners featured in the issue.

Helen Hayes further emphasises the issue, saying: The young people I speak to have an excellent grasp of local issues, and a passion to make a difference. But for the most part they have no idea that their knowledge and interest could, with training, translate into a rewarding career as a planner”.

It is perhaps evident that young people are passionate about such issues, but they need to be empowered.

Routes into planning

In The Planner’s Career Survey 2018/19, an overwhelming majority of respondents suggested offering more work experience placements and attending colleges and schools to be the most effective vehicles for engaging young people.

There is increasing attention to offering alternative routes into the planning profession outside of going to university. The RTPI currently offers a chartered town planning apprenticeship and a town planning assistant apprenticeship. Local councils are increasing the number of town planning apprenticeships at their organisations and private planning firms are also known for offering apprenticeships and work experience.

For instance, private firm Barton Willmore engaged with University of West of England Bristol students looking for new ideas through live planning challenges, leading to students later joining the firm on placements and work experience. The notion of ‘inviting in by reaching out’ is certainly a viable and rewarding route for both students and planning organisations, creating long-standing professional relationships.

The RTPI facilitates an ambassadors scheme which offers RTPI members the chance to speak at schools and universities about the planning profession, and the RTPI Trust also offers bursaries such as £2,000 of support to BAME and disabled undergraduate planning students.

Final thoughts

Taking a step back from the low-level engagement of young people with the profession, there is an argument that true representation will not be achieved unless there is an agenda for the reform of the top-down nature of the planning system and its practices.

Helen Hayes suggests that there should be a removal of the red tape and needless bureaucracy” in moving towards transparent and well-informed decision making, in which the views of diverse communities and groups should be reflected.

Perhaps genuine engagement and consultation with under-represented groups, such as young people, will help to inspire a new generation of planners to enter a progressive and equitable profession.

Image: Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash


Further reading: more about the planning profession on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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