Planning has the tools to address many of the challenges facing young people and their communities, says Helen Hayes MP. It’s vital to make planning a career of choice for those who want to make a difference.
It is time to restore a vision of planning as the key to delivering the needs of local communities, while also safeguarding their interests – whether in terms of character and appearance, capacity in local services or the environment and climate change – for future generations. It is time for planning to step up and play its full part in helping to restore trust in democratic processes.
To do that, the planning profession urgently needs a more diverse workforce. The RTPI’s recent commitment to diversity is very welcome, and it needs to be supported by measures to encourage people from a diverse range of backgrounds to choose planning as a career, starting in our schools.
“Young people are deeply affected by issues related to planning, but for the most part they have no idea that their interest could translate into a rewarding career."
In my constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, many young people are deeply affected by issues related to planning, whether because they are living with the consequences of the housing crisis, or seeing their local neighbourhood change as private rents increase, or because they are worried about climate change.
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.
By contrast, the source of many planning related controversies across the country is so often a proposal that has misjudged or misunderstood what a particular local community really values.
Many years ago, I briefly worked in Chicago on a campaign to safeguard a number of buildings on the south side of the city that were not in themselves necessarily beautiful or of architectural interest, but which were culturally important sites to the local community. They included the former headquarters buildings of the first black-owned insurance business and newspaper, and a well-known jazz club.
There had been a fundamental failure to appreciate how important these locations were to the history and identity of present-day South Side Chicago residents by planners who saw only a series of run-down buildings.
Planning professionals drawn from a more diverse range of backgrounds will bring a richer understanding of the particularity of individual communities, and enable processes and plans better to reflect local priorities from the beginning.
Engagement for democracy
We also need the profession to speak up for the processes at the heart of planning practice that are neither red tape nor needless bureaucracy, but the vital steps towards well-informed, transparent and democratic decision-making. For example, planning can only build confidence in local communities if there is the time and resource to run meaningful processes of community engagement, locally and democratically owned.
We need the best practice seen in many neighbourhood planning processes to be reflected in local plan-making, and we need planning authorities to be setting the highest expectations for pre-application consultation and engagement, and holding applicants to account for delivering it.
Local authority planning departments that have been cut to the bone cannot possibly achieve this [The Planner’s careers survey illustrates the pressures felt by public sector planners – Ed.]. But unless the profession makes the case for the importance of engagement, it will continue to be overlooked.
"We need an agenda for reform, at the heart of which must be reform of the rules on land values and viability"
Engagement processes must also be designed to capture a genuinely representative range of voices from within any given community. Our current planning system tends overwhelmingly to give voice to existing homeowners – to the almost total exclusion of those urgently in need of social housing or seeking to get on the housing ladder. Planners should be resourced to devise new processes and forms of engagement that genuinely capture a representative range of views.
We need an agenda for reform, at the heart of which must be reform of the rules on land values and viability. How can communities be expected to trust a system that so often fails at the final hurdle because developers can argue that they cannot comply with local policy on affordability or when the system is forced to prioritise the hope value of a private landowner over the pressing need of a local community for more affordable homes?
Finally, we need a much more robust set of policy standards, from space and accessibility standards to fire safety to thermal efficiency. Planning must deliver new development of genuine long-term benefit both to individuals and communities.
Having inspired a new generation of planners to enter a visionary, progressive profession, we also need new routes into planning, including apprenticeships, which enable people to learn and to gain qualifications while they are working (see box – ‘Inviting in, reaching out’).
A strong agenda for reform will help to make the planning profession a career of choice for young people who want to make a difference in their own communities and beyond – and it’s up to all of us to shout about it!
Helen Hayes is a former town planner and has been the Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood since 2015. She sits on the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee, and is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Housing and Planning. This article is written in a personal capacity.
Image credit | IKON