Part 3: Building the 21st century planner

The Planner’s Careers Survey found a strong awareness of the contemporary trends that are shaping the world for which planners plan. Simon Wicks asks what this means for the education of the 21st century planner.

Rediscovering the social good

For Anna Rose, head of the Planning Advisory Service, the need to reiterate planning’s public purpose is paramount. The most vital skill, at a time when “planning isn’t relating to its communities in quite the way it should”, is the ability to engage with people. You can have all the technology you like, but this doesn’t change.

Yet community engagement came just fourth as a skills priority in our survey. “I think the foundation of a good planner is your personal skills, and importantly the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective,” she says.

“How you bring that about is not by ‘forcing’ it into the system… It needs to be shown in education. When we are training planners we need to show how the involvement of different opinions can inform a better solution.”

She warms to her theme. “Communities are a big part of what we do and a part with which we haven’t got to grips with. So we spend a lot of our time in appeals and public meetings where conversation isn’t positive.

“This leads to government thinking planning is getting in the way. That has been happening for a long time. I don’t think as a profession we have found the answer.”

In particular, Rose notes, planners need to find ways to reach more deeply into communities and to engage both with the traditionally hard to engage and with people who they know are not going to give them an easy time.

“The culture that I really value in planners is those that can see the benefit of engaging with people that they won’t necessarily normally wish to. Those people who go to meet upset communities and have real conversations about what this means and take risks with taking developers out to meet those people,” she says.

“We have to earn that trust in order to get the best out of planning. We need to involve everybody and be brave and be honest. We spent too much time explaining why we are asking for [a development] to happen and not enough time listening to why they don’t want that to happen.

“If we then try to build on that to create places that meet at least some of those ideas then we would probably start to move further forward.”

Signs of a sea change

The environment is, as ever, changing, however. Both Close and Rose are alive to the nuances in how planning is perceived as a public activity – and in particular a sense that the public purpose of planning is becoming more appreciated again. “With the level of interest in planning and development, and the changes that have happened to land use legislation over the past 10-20 years, there appear to be a lot more hurdles to go through,” explains Close. “But I would say the core purpose of planning hasn’t got more complex – it’s about managing land for the social good. We are working in the public interest for long-term needs.”

Rose argues that this public interest is becoming more apparent as the unintended consequences of national policy and spending decisions mount up. Without good public planning, the quality and usefulness of the built environment is bound to decay.

“The core purpose of planning hasn't got more complex – it’s about managing land for the social good”
“I do feel optimistic as a result of talking to private sector friends and developers,” she says. “I think we have now got an appreciation of the role that everybody plays in the planning process.

“It’s taken a long time to get there, to an appreciation that public sector planners have a role, as do private sector planners, and without either the system breaks.”

Perhaps, then, the most radical aspect of a contemporary planning career might just be that it could be underpinned by a return to first principles in a more appreciative context. but this is contingent on planning building on change.

“If we talk to the ministry, the RTPI, Planning Officers’ Society, Local Government Association, everybody is looking at how we can encourage more people into the profession and how we can make planners lives a bit better. I cannot remember the last time we had that common ground. That’s a huge opportunity.”

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Image credit | Hit and Run Media 

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