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Entering a period of change: The RTPI Cymru Conference 2017

Words: Laura Edgar

What does the future hold for planning in Wales - and beyond? Laura Edgar reports from the 10th annual RTPI Cymru Conference

The 10th annual RTPI Cymru Conference considered the past, present and future of planning, as well as energy, housing, leadership, data and policy. So – how has the landscape changed? And what can be done going forward, here and across the pond?

Devolution & technological revolution

Reflecting on her career in planning, and the changes the profession has undergone, former chief planner at the Welsh Government Rosemary Thomas discussed the job market and the growth of planning consultancies since she began job-hunting in the mid 1970s.  Today, technology has given planners previously unimaginable ways of conducting their business.

Devolution, meanwhile, through the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in July 1999, for Thomas  “marked a positive change”. The former chief planner detailed Wales’ subsequent devolution journey, and how the National Assembly for Wales became responsible for land use planning, planning policy and the shaping of secondary legislation before graduating to primary legislation. 

Thomas went on to speak about the Welsh Government’s commitment to sustainable development and the Paris climate agreement, as well as the likely effect of Brexit including the loss of £300 million from the EU Common Agricultural Policy and its effect on farming and rural communities.

The next decade

Thomas is confident that Wales will have a national development framework in place with regional strategic plans reflecting the city deal areas of Cardiff and Swansea, as well as north-east Wales, joining Manchester and Liverpool.

Thomas expects there to be fewer planning authorities, but “better” service delivery. She emphasised the importance of maintaining local development plans and expects air quality to improve as “robust controls are introduced”.

“The future has to be better than the past. You have got the chance to make it better"

“With all this, I am confident we will have more creative delivery of affordable homes and sites in accessible locations with good services and green infrastructure; places where people are content to live, and to put down roots. It’s about place-making,” she said.

However, Thomas urged her audience to embrace the inevitable structural changes ahead. “The future has to be better than the past. You have got the chance to make it better. In the face of changes and challenges, don’t panic. Be brave, have bold visions – and seize the opportunity.”

What is happening in the US?

Guest speaker Jason Jordan, director of policy and government affairs at the American Planning Association, suggested that there were a number of plausible explanations for the “rise of populous-oriented politics of dissatisfaction” in the United States.

Contributing to this, he said, is a crisis of opportunity, a sense that people do not have the economic mobility, the social mobility and the opportunities they once had. He added that the US suffered from a crisis of community as well as trust.

"I think we have to reposition this profession less as a protector of process and more as an enabler of outcomes" - Jason Jordan

The US, he said, was “very divided” in where growth was happening. Job creation had grown under Barack Obama – in the West Coast, the North-East quarter, Florida and Texas – but was not a universally “lived experience”.

For Jordan, the role of place and place-making is the “biggest driver of economic development today”.

Like Wales and the wider UK, the US needs “more and better” housing and infrastructure. Also, he added: “We have to do better at capturing the value of these investments, and at assuring that value in ways that address these inequality issues. We have to be smarter about where we are making these investments.”

Going forward

Planning, said Jordan, is essential to meeting social and political challenges. 

But in orfer to fulfil this promise, planners must speak up. They have to find their voice, not just as professionals but as advocates, and as “people willing to front political truths”. Planners have to be better at engaging people, at pulling people into the local decision-making process and at using technology to allow people to feel ownership of the plans created. They have to embrace the idea that, at least for the short term, leadership is going to happen on the local level.