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News analysis: Conference considers lead role for planning north of the border

Words: Martin Read

The Planner's editor Martin Read reports from a 'bullish' RTPI Scotland conference

With a substantial review leading to a planning bill that’s set to be published before the year-end, 2017 always seemed destined for lively annual RTPI Scotland conference. What we got was certainly progressive in thought, as befits the event’s three grand themes – planning for inclusive growth, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Professor Cliff Hague’s opening address saw him take the “I agree with Nick” role in proceedings, with many who followed him on the lectern harking back to his conference kick-starting call for planning to “rediscover the moral compass that was once the reason for the profession”. 

The UN’s new urban agenda meant that “planning is back” said an ebullient Hague, who believed planning was key to Scotland achieving its strategic development goal obligations. Indeed, this was a conference focused very much on the future and imbued with a distinct sense of optimism that the profession, with the UN’s New Urban Agenda and the dramatic urbanisation of the planet set to happen within our lifetimes, was about return to the status it maintained until the 1970s before it became characterised as the cumbersome impediment to economic growth that the stereotype insists it is.

 “The planning bill will empower people in our communities to be more involved and to have a really and positive involvement in the future development of their places" Kevin Stewart MSP, minister for government and housing

The head of enterprise and cities at the Scottish Government, Oonagh Gil, was bullish about how planning would be key to the government’s inclusive growth agenda. How might planning divest itself of its reputation as a slow moving beast and impediment to development? Longer-term thinking is key, said Gil, as is a clearer alignment with the government’s inclusive growth agenda through innovations such as local place plans being prioritised to reflect improved growth priority areas.

Spatial vision for Scotland

Speaking on the subject of environmental sustainability, Anne McCall MRTPI, director of RSPB Scotland, argued that perhaps “Scotland’s economic plan should in fact be the equal of the economic expression of the national planning framework, which in turn expresses our spatial vision for Scotland and the future?” The country’s economic policies needed to be recognised as a means to an end, not an end in themselves, said McCall.

“For planning to really achieve environmental sustainability, we have to free ourselves from the statutory straitjacket of land use planning.”

Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Government and Housing closed conference with a strident call to action.”I want to see a planning system that is collaborative, not conflicted; one that performs at a high standard, and that requires everyone to perform to those same high standards.

Stewart spoke of planning being more “visionary”. Current development plans were far too complex and instead needed to “show a clear picture of where development is needed and when and how it will happen”.

“As Cliff Hague reminds us, planning has its roots in social inclusivity. If we planners are not going to embrace the agenda, who will?” Lesley Martin, lead member, RSA Building Inclusive Growth Network in Scotland

“I want planners to adopt a can-do attitude, bringing people together and empowering them. Making things happen is absolutely vital.”

Stewart called for planners not merely to facilitate development, but to enable it, helping to identify any impediments preventing new development from proceeding.

Talk was of urgency, of ‘making things happen’ and planning being ‘absolutely vital’. And a particular word kept on cropping up during the day – of planning as a sector and planners as individuals being effective leaders.

In his peroration, Stewart honed in on this point: “To do all this we need strong and effective leadership – and that’s about each and every one of you.”

Leadership in this context seems to be used as shorthand for assertiveness, a can-do mentality, and a focus on ‘outcomes instead of process’. With lofty ambitions and bullish approach under-pinning this conference, there’s a lot for the profession to live up to. But in Scotland, there seems no shortage of people keen to run with the idea.

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