Ensuring that growth and great places aren’t incompatible … reflections on the RTPI Convention

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The 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week was attended by over 400 people keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. Being held just a few days after the UK’s Brexit vote, there was a predictable inevitability when every speaker prefaced their talk with the caveat ‘of course everything is uncertain now’. A consistent message across the day however was that regardless of the political uncertainty, the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.

While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.

Planning great places

Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.

Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.

Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. The benefits of having one integrated strategy is that it sets a vision for ‘place’ that all departments can mobilise behind. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.

Delivering housing growth

Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. A number of speakers argued that direct intervention in the housing market, for example through local housing companies or councils buying sites, was becoming a necessity. Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, pointed out that central government interventions have been focused on the consumer end of the market (for example, Starter Homes) rather than on delivering development sites and land.

Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, also suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.

The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.

What if cities could change our world?

While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.

Alfonso Vegara, of Fundación Metropóli, describing the rejuvenation of Bilbao, suggested that successful planning needs to recognise the new scale of cities and economic development. The interconnections mean that growth corridors or city regions are only going to become more important. Successful economic growth will be dependent on retaining and attracting talent and skills in polycentric areas, and strategic planning needs to take this into account. The successful regeneration of Bilbao “was not a miracle, but the result of vision and leadership.”

This theme was also reflected in Ed Cox’s session on the RTPI’s work with IPPR on the need for an integrated, spatial approach to growing the economy in the North of England. Producing a vision for prosperity will depend on addressing key structural challenges. Maximising opportunities within an interconnected metropolitan region needs to recognise the importance of both cities and their hinterlands. It was also argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ ambition will fail if citizens aren’t helped to feel engaged economically, politically and socially.

A rallying cry for leadership

There has been a trend in recent years for the planning system to be portrayed as a barrier and a bureaucratic obstacle which is getting in the way of growth. One speaker quoted Joseph Konvitz saying “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.

As a profession, planners are trained to take a holistic view. They operate at the junction between politics, finance and community. And they are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.

The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.

The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

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The new politics for planning

rtpi brochure coverThe 2015 RTPI Planning Convention was held last week and was attended by over 450 people keen to discuss the future of the profession and the planning system following the UK general election. Just two days after the conference, the government published its ‘productivity plan’ setting out wide-reaching changes to planning, and highlighting the importance that is being placed on planning as a channel (or barrier) to economic growth.

While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to demonstrate the new i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.

A call to arms

During the day there were a range of sessions exploring the delivery of planning at different spatial scales as well as the need for planners to engage with other professions and policy areas. Janet Askew, RTPI President, argued that we “must persuade people that planners are good for places” while Eugénie Birch issued a rallying call, saying “we have a chance to advocate, a chance to be bold”.

Probably the session that created the most buzz was Waheed Nazir describing the journey that the planning team in Birmingham City Council have been on. The need for strong, visionary leaders within the profession, echoes the conclusion of a recent OECD Forum on local economic development which explored the new skill set needed to be a good local leader.

Waheed suggested that “process has overtaken the creativity of the profession”. Planners need to “liberate themselves from well-intended bureaucracy”. In terms of providing leadership, two key aspects are setting the vision and then enabling delivery. By trusting staff and empowering them to deliver the agenda which had been agreed, Waheed felt that they had been able to do things which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The Curzon masterplan and Birmingham’s Big City Plan were showcased as examples.

New ways of planning

In the afternoon, the practicalities of current planning were explored in sessions on strategic planning and neighbourhood planning. Neighbourhood planning was identified as a powerful set of tools but audience questions suggested some disquiet. Neighbourhood plans, where they are being developed, seem to support stronger community identity but are still operating in their own bubble. As the spatial scale increases, the level of public participation in planning decreases – so the learning from neighbourhood plans needs to be fed back into Local Plan development.

Planning for our children’s children’s children

In terms of strategic planning sessions, there was a big emphasis on thinking long term. Pam Ewen talked about whether we do enough long term, strategic thinking. Do we think big enough or take enough risks? We don’t just create planning documents as an end in themselves – they are investment and marketing tools to galvinise action. Reflecting on the theme of leadership, Pam also highlighted the need to see developing a strategic plan as a project in its own right; clear direction, objective and communication were vital to the plan’s success.

This was echoed by Richard Blyth who also emphasised the need for cross-boundary cooperation, which brings mutual benefits and the need for greater collaboration across housing, health and education.

Challenges for the profession

The final session looked at the politics and challenges facing the profession. Michael Edwards highlighted that planning is a profession committed to serving the whole of society. Planners have to work within the policy framework, but take account of the wishes of society and strive to reflect on the good and bad plans and outcomes.

Leading the placemaking agenda

Overall the day tied planning into wider cross-cutting issues such as sustainability and wellbeing. Vincent Goodstadt, a past President of the RTPI, summed up when he said we “need a broader, proactive view of planning to help maximise its economic and social value”. What was surprising therefore was how little reference was explicitly made to devolution.

If the planning profession is really to lead and shape the debate on the future approach to place-making then this needs addressed. Otherwise the risk is that riding on the coat-tails of the economic agenda (especially when the government is inferring in its reforms that we need ‘less planning’ to enable growth) may take the planning system in a direction that planners would rather not go.

Knowledge Insider: a Q&A with Michael Harris from the RTPI

rtpiIn the latest of our series of Q&As with leading advocates of the use of evidence in policymaking and practice, we talk to Michael Harris, Deputy Head of Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute. The RTPI holds a unique position in relation to planning as a professional membership body, a charity and a learned institute. They have a responsibility to promote the research needs of spatial planning in the UK, Ireland and internationally. They add to the evidence base through in-house research and policy analysis, for example their Policy papers. We interviewed Michael about the research issues facing the planning profession.

Michael, how do you think planners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

I think all professions need to be evidence based, it’s the core of being a professional, and it enables you to perform your role, not just on a judgement but an expert professional one. This is the first way planners can benefit; keeping on top of what’s the best available evidence ensures you are effective. All professions have innovators, those who get things done and make changes, and learning from them and using their experience through case studies, best practice and collaboration ensures their good practice gets pushed out to the whole profession and that’s the core benefit of using evidence.

The second benefit is getting the bigger picture, ensuring you understand the major economic, social and environmental challenges. Such as how to create growth, achieve sustainable development, and understand the impact of aging and climate change. All these need new thinking, innovation, and cross discipline knowledge – the best way to do this is through evidence and research.

I work with policy makers to inform policy, and I constantly challenge the perception that planners are an inhibitor of growth. Evidence of the impact and the value which planners add to the growth of places, helps me challenge this perception and benefits the profession as a whole.

What are the main issues facing planners in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

The main challenges are:

  • Resources, having less and less and being asked to do more and more. How do we deal with those demands – evidence and sharing of best practice can play a critical role, we can learn from others, and other professions. How do you move from just evaluating what you do based on efficiency and cutting costs to ensuring effectiveness, and improving the impact and outcome of what you are doing? Evidence can help you stop just thinking about efficiency and also take account of effectiveness.
  • Demonstrating the value of planning – we need to make a stronger case for the economic, social and environmental role of planners, and not be characterised as processors. Planners carry out a key role in shaping the world around us, not simply managing a process, and the challenge is to continue to demonstrate this.
  • Ensuring local participation and being more strategic, operating across boundaries, especially for issues such as flooding. It’s difficult for planners to act strategically if the political support isn’t there. There needs to be a will there to enable planners to be truly effective. None the less, a key duty of a professional is to promote understanding; the only way we can do this well, is to work more effectively across boundaries.

My sense is that practitioners value examples of where other authorities have achieved more. Where strategic planning has worked and how you can make it work, or where someone has dealt with limited resources or sustainable development. Case studies are a core strand of accessible evidence, but many are buried in academic research or journals and the RTPI / Idox Information Service are really good at finding them and making them easier to access. This need will only grow greater as more and more information is produced.

In terms of data needs for the future, what we are increasingly seeing potential from is “Big Data”, for example we can make connections between health, social mobility and environment. In the next 5 or 10 years we will be able to draw on these big data sets, which will be a very powerful tool for planners in making decisions about places, and having a strategic, holistic approach to development.

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

The big challenge is time – planners haven’t got time to go looking for evidence – and accessibility of research papers, which are buried in academic journals. The academic language is a barrier, and its timeliness. Often it’s interesting to read but doesn’t relate to the current policy context, so research needs to be more timely and more practical and applied. Alongside time, support from their organisations to look at evidence – the access to evidence resources and time or budget to attend CPD is frequently raised as an issue.

Not enough research is accessible; academic incentives aren’t about applicability; it’s driven by the need to be of a high standard, set by other academics and journals. It is possible to do academic work which is useable and there are lots of good examples, but there are barriers for the academic to deal with. There is good academic research which is relevant but it’s difficult to find. There are also issues about the subjects covered and academic’s interest versus policy maker’s priorities – sometimes there are overlaps but often they are very different.

For example Value of Planning is a key policy issue at the moment – what is the economic impact of planning – but academics don’t see this as an issue as they are already positive about planning. They take for granted that planners have an impact, so don’t see the need to investigate the nature and form of that impact.

What are the hard-to-spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, things you which you really need to avoid?

Two things I would highlight. Given what the constraints are, it’s easy to rely on an old body of evidence, what you were taught when you were being trained, and not keeping it up to date. That’s why Idox Information Service and RTPI research, especially practice notes which are aimed at helping practitioners refresh knowledge and keep up to date, are essential.

There is also a danger of being too narrow, and not looking at wider areas and topics which affect planning. This creates a narrower perspective on development. Briefing services are really helpful to overcome this, looking at a variety of reports and papers – you can look at the areas you are interested in directly, but you can also scan the broader perspective. Planning should be about not thinking in silos, but how does ‘this’ affect ‘that’ – how can people travel to work, access jobs or get outdoors and you need to think about and be exposed to broader ideas to understand these issues.

Thinking ‘economically’ is something we are trying to promote, not just the traditional way, but our argument is that planning is critical to the economic success of places; it can make them more attractive, livelier, sustainable, and environmentally appealing, so it’s the broader contribution to success that is important. Every planning decision contributes to the success of a place.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

I would like to see a profession known for its evidence-based practice, with practitioners able to find, and understand, in an accessible way, the latest evidence.

The future should be where academic research is more and more accessible and applicable to practice having a real impact on delivery. Collaboration between practitioners and researchers makes research more relevant. Projects which have come out of these partnerships have real impact and RTPI will be supporting these projects in the future.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

So much stuff out there, how do you find out what’s going on? Social media and twitter is an incredibly useful research tool – following research organisations, following blogs, can be really useful. Knowledge isn’t static any more, and things you read only 5 years ago can be quite out of date now, and planners need to continually keep up to date. The RTPI and Idox blogs are good in terms of wide-ranging coverage and highlighting latest research but there are plenty out there.

What led you to a role in research and evidence development? 

I did a PhD in politics and public policy, was always more interested in how you can make research more relevant and of interest to policy makers, but I am also aware of the barriers for academics doing this.

I have always sat in organisations that do this bridging. RTPI, as a learned society is doing this for its members. Research is important, but only important if it’s communicated and people can act on it, otherwise it is lost and never read. I see myself as facilitating its use and contribution to change and improvement in practice.

Academic research being read is vital, but academics need to understand the policy constraints, and the importance of making a compelling argument to change practice and policy today.


The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

This year Idox is also sponsoring the RTPI Research Excellence Awards, recognising and promoting high quality spatial planning research.

Find out more about our work supporting planners on our website.