Planning is back – but in which direction is it headed?

Luke Slattery of RTPI Scotland gives his view of this year’s annual conference The New Agenda: Planners as Visionaries, Facilitators and Enablers, which took place in Edinburgh on 3 October

This year’s conference tasked a number of high profile speakers with discussing planning’s role, remit and responsibility in realising the themes of the New Urban Agenda, agreed by all UN nations at last year’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. The questions we asked were:

  • How do we plan for inclusive growth?
  • How do we plan for social justice?
  • How do we plan for environmental sustainability?

Emeritus Professor Cliff Hague introduced each of these in the context of rapid global urbanisation. He positioned The New Urban Agenda not just as an opportunity, but as a moral challenge to planners. This, and his assertion that planning has been side-lined, set the tone for a challenging day asking how planning can be more radical, more influential and more effective.

rtpi conference room 2Conference in full swing

Inclusive Growth – an oxymoron?

Four speakers placed planners firmly at the coalface of realising inclusive growth. Oonagh Gil of the Scottish Government presented work towards a potential delivery strategy, Lesley Martin debunked short-sighted practice that has gone before, Nick Skelton of Peter Brett Associates pulled out some of the practical challenges of achieving inclusive growth, and Jen Wallace of Carnegie UK emphasised the importance of framing this debate in the context of wellbeing.

Community engagement, partnership working and the value of evidence-based approaches were all identified as essential. But, as ever, we need delivery for success.

With this in mind, the Q&A discussion fluttered between budget constraints, to practicalities, to politics – but the overwhelming sense was one of responsibility: if not planners, then who?

Social Justice – who should answer?

Sarah Boyack of Heriot Watt University expressed her concern to conference about how Scotland’s social problems are caused by and manifested within our ongoing struggle to provide enough homes. Andy Milne of the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum (SURF) followed by addressing the root of planning’s most difficult conundrums: inequality.

Their insights built upon the previous discussion points on delivery and improving outcomes. We have this responsibility, as planners, to create great places and contribute to a fairer society – so let’s build a system which sees this happen.

Environmental Sustainability – a concept forgotten?

As discussion turned to environmental issues, we heard from Anne McCall of RSPB who reminded the room of planning’s remit to see the (often) limitlessness of nature well-managed, Gordon Watson on what planning has achieved within the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park Authority, and Martin Valenti of SEPA who tasked delegates and speakers with seeking opportunity from challenges, rather than accepting them, urging a cooperative way of working in doing so.

Their insights reaffirmed the remit of planners in the room to be Visionaries, Facilitators and Enablers, not merely conflict referees.

Concluding the Inconclusive?

As ever, the variety of speakers gave the event a unique edge, and the discussion continually allowed delegates to consider how they might make a difference, or push for change in their own work.

Janice Morphet of the Bartlett School of Planning enthused conference with planning’s potential to be a bastion of certainty in the face of the UK’s exit from the EU, echoing the idea that ‘planning is back!’

Upon Reflection…

Luke Slattery of RTPI Scotland attending his first annual conference, reflects on his:

Favourite reference:

I really enjoyed Andy Milne’s opening message on how planners can work together to tackle inequality, where he referenced Yuval Noah Harari’s best-seller ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’. Andy was prepared to go quite far back to prove the cooperative skillsets that planners possess, as far back as the beginning of history in fact, when homo sapiens became the only remaining species of humans on earth – outpacing homo rudolfensis, homo erectus and homo neanderthalensis. Widely accepted by scientists and eloquently put by Harari (and Milne), homo sapiens became dominant as a result of their ability to cooperate across wide social networks, following the cognitive revolution.

As well as being from a fantastic book, Andy’s use of Harari’s story as a metaphor for how powerful planning can be because of this distinct advantage was inspiring. He reminded planners in the room that continuing to encourage a cooperative way of working is not only possible, but required, if we are to achieve what we collectively want in society, and see inequality reduced.

I found it a very powerful message, and a great anecdote to open with. While the planning profession is often credited with bringing groups and interests together, it should always seek to do more to ensure we fully capture our unique human instinct.

Favourite Challenges Set:

Martin Valenti, purposefully countering some (false) perceptions in the room about SEPA’s unvarying message and role – namely, to charge companies for the environmental degradation they cause – put forward two challenges to delegates and speakers. The first, very specific: Ridding Scotland of all vacant and derelict land, an area which currently occupies the size of two Dundee’s, by the year 2050. Second, more high level but equally inspiring: working collaboratively and innovatively to promote a circular economy through planning.

I felt Martin was very influential in this use of imagery and perspective when discussing planning’s remit to inflict change, and he captured the need for delivery echoed in many of the previous speeches and discussions. His understanding of SEPA’s role, and the way he informed conference about how he viewed his own job, was more akin to entrepreneurial and innovative thinking than regulatory and rule enforcing.

Martin told us about a recent entrepreneurial partnership between SEPA and Entrepreneurial Scotland to see the country’s waste tyres problem eliminated, as part of efforts to move to a circular economy. I was very pleased to hear about SEPA launching such a partnership, and Martin practicing what he was preaching – collaboration for innovation – in solving one of Scotland’s critical waste issues.

Favourite discussion:

One of the highlights of any conference is always being able to meet people, familiar or otherwise. This year’s event was no different.

Following speakers’ contributions on environmental sustainability, conference dispersed into table discussions on what planning could do better on the environmental front. At my table, everything from Passivhaus standards and permeable surfaces, to sustainable urban design and active-travel provision in new housing schemes was discussed – and everyone was keen to engage.

Again, discussion turned to delivery when it was opened to the room. I found it motivating, as a budding planner, the ease with which delegates came up with and shared new ideas about how their profession could (and should) change.

In answering questions, speakers didn’t shy from areas which might be seen to be beyond their remit. While each speaker had their own specialisms, interests and agenda to uphold, widespread agreement that planning, and consideration for the spatial, are vitally important if we are to better protect and enhance our environment was certainly the take home message.

Best question asked:

Beyond table discussions, the enthusiasm instilled in many delegated was clear in their correspondence with speakers. Questions for Minister Kevin Stewart MSP attracted everyone’s attention, but one from Nick Skelton of PBA stands out in particular.

He asked how we can expect the role of the private sector to change for planning and the planning system, as we anticipate a Planning Bill, within which collaborative working is likely to be a central motivation.

Welcoming the challenging question, the Minister answered by shedding some light on his past local authority experience, telling conference that he didn’t always get planning decisions right when he was an elected Councillor. I thought this was a very honest outlook on his main experience with planning, and a welcomed recognition of the difficulty experienced in the profession at times.

He reassured the room that he wants planning to be used to its full potential and for planners to be able to use their skillsets, agreeing that it needs to be well resourced. On the private sector, the Minister felt it should have a big role to play, particularly in the delivery of new homes – from consent to delivery.

Take home message:

The well-rounded discussions, which planners from all sectors are specialised in having is testament to the profession’s value and planners’ skillsets. Many of the discussions were left unfinished, intentionally or otherwise, but it was clear to see that in raising questions to the room or to individuals during the conference breaks, delegates were not there as spectators, but as participants.

The message was that planning is back, and I have no doubt the day will facilitate new working opportunities, whether these be through partnerships or other methods.

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