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Q&A: 50 years of RTPI accreditation at London South Bank University

Words: The Planner
South Bank University

London South Bank University was the first educational institution to provide an RTPI-accredited planning qualification, in 1968/69. The 50th anniversary will be marked with an alumni event at LSBU on 2 May, from 4-8pm.

RTPI past president Martin Willey FRTPI (left) was a planning student at LSBU when the accredited qualification was introduced. We spoke to him about planning education in the 60s and the role of accreditation in ensuring planners have the skills needed for the modern world.

The Planner: Hello Martin. Can you tell us, when did you study at LSBU? And wasn’t it called South Bank Polytechnic then?

Martin Willey (MW): I studied from 1967-71 and originally it was Brixton School of Building. It got RTPI accreditation in 1968. (Editor’s note: the institution started life as the Borough Polytechnic Institute in 1892, became the Brixton School of Building in 1904, the Polytechnic of the South bank in 1970, then South Bank Polytechnic in 1987 and London South Bank University in 1992. Phew!)

What was your course/qualification?

MW: The six-year part-time day release course prepared you for the RTPI External Exams in Town Planning, as when I started it was pre-accreditation. I completed the RTPI Exams in just over four years so never received a diploma or degree! However, the teaching was so good that I completed MRTPI in five years as at that time two years eligible experience was required of which one could be while you were training then one after passing RTPI exams.

Were you part of the first cohort to take the accredited qualification? What were planning courses like a that time?

MW: No I wasn’t. However, the accredited course was the same as the non-accredited preparation for RTPI exams. This was the time of Traffic in Towns by Colin Buchanan, Silent Spring by Rächael Carson, systems planning and cybernetics, and cost-benefit analysis by Nat Lichfield. The courses paralleled the RTPI external approach so there was a design element with a half-day site visit then a half day to draw it up. I did housing on Primrose Hill! You had to do a measured drawing – mine was Carlton House Terrace. It was a time when planning led the public sector policy agenda. The Regional Studies Association was born in the late 60s and I was lucky enough to be the first student member on the board. Now the RSA is one of the most widely recognised expert academic bodies in the world. Training to be a planner was really fun!

What did accreditation mean? 

MW: It meant that passing the course made you eligible for membership once two years’ eligible experience was achieved.

How well did it prepare you for a life/career in planning?

MW: It was fantastic! Sean McConnell was the Head of School and he and other lecturers – Tony Morris for planning history, George Chartres for design, Mike Fitzgerald for economics (who became vice-chancellor of Central London Polytechnic) and many others either worked in the Greater London Council (GLC) where I was a trainee or contributed to Official Architecture and Planning, the ‘Bible’ for practising planners at that time – meant that you were comprehensively prepared for practice. In particular, George taught me how to think and express myself three-dimensionally and Mike taught me how to structure reports and essays.

You’ve continued to lecture in retirement. How has planning education evolved since your student days?

MW: It has evolved and is much more complex, building upon such things as Nat Lichfield’s cost-benefit analysis to cover sustainability, ecology, much wider economic issues and, since Skeffington [the Skeffington Report, People and Planning: Report of the Committee on Public Participation in Planning [http://www.communityplanning.cooperative.website/archives/definitionsheet/skeffington-report ], published in 1969], much more “engagement” with the communities served by particular planning products. Legally and procedurally, it is much more complex and, interestingly, the emphasis on the three foundation stones of planning – economy, environment and community/society – go up and down. So in the 1970s the economy ruled, under Tony Blair, environment featured strongly and currently community leads. For all the planning courses I have been involved in, the contribution of external professionals has been extensive, important and generally very good.

Do you feel there are ways in which planning education has improved?

MW: As a profession we are at last recognising the relevance of our ethical standards and the importance of excellent communications to deal with the various facets of society – community and special interest groups, politicians, developers/investors and industry/services/commerce.

Why is it important to have accredited courses? What’s the point of that?

MW: The bar to achieving accreditation is at least as high as a Master’s degree. The work of the RTPI in accrediting courses and managing them through partnership boards with universities is rigorous and reviewed every year to make sure not just standards are maintained but courses are fit for purpose.

How do you think accreditation could/should develop? Where, for example, do apprenticeships slot in?

MW: The current trend in applications for accredited courses is more for part- and full-time postgraduate courses and less for undergraduate courses, albeit not everywhere. The RTPI is also expanding internationally and it is fair to say that most countries view the RTPI as the leading professional body, although the USA association is very strong too. Apprentices are a part-time quasi-undergraduate opportunity to capture more potential planners at the coalface at a time when there is a severe shortage of professionals.

Have you kept in touch with your fellow students? What sort of careers have they gone on to have?

MW: I am friends with many London South Bank Alumni, including those from Brixton School of Building. Most have followed local authority, government, consultant or development routes, but the chap who persuaded me to become a planner worked for Colin Buchanan at the time but went on to run major infrastructure projects for the World Bank!

Alumni coming to the LSBU reunion on 2 May vary from managing directors or heads of service in house builders and associations, to environmental consultants and an ex-mayor of a London Borough. There will also be contributions from England’s chief planner, the RTPI’s chief executive, RTPI presidents and many more.

The 50th anniversary alumni event will take place at LSBU from 4-8pm on 2 May. To reserve a place, please email Neil Adams on adamsn3@lsbu.ac.uk

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