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Phil Williams becomes RTPI president

Words: Laura Edgar

Phil Williams has been inaugurated as the 2016 president of the RTPI at a ceremony held in London.

Williams, director of planning and place at Belfast City Council, has 35 years of experience in the public sector in London and Welsh authorities. He successfully led a number of projects, including the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay.

Before passing the baton to Williams, outgoing president Janet Askew reflected on her own year as president, which included:

  • 451 media stories

  • Meeting and speaking to about 2,000 people, many of whom were planners doing a “brilliant job, and against the odds, you might say”

  • Travelling 58,500 miles, the furthest journey being to New Zealand

  • Speaking 100 times in 15 countries

Askew said her ambition has been to promote the RTPI and planning but, she continued, she has also been challenged about her ideas and why she is a town planner.

The main issues being talked about around the world are: sustainability, climate change and liveability.

Askew said she has been able to speak about all three on her travels, because her home city of Bristol was the 2015 Green Capital of Europe.

Urban sprawl was on the mind of planners at the American Planning Association conference. They questioned how the UK had managed to restrict urban sprawl with its green belt, and how can the same be done across America? She said the question was asked of her everywhere she went.

Moving onto her tour of Britain, Askew said the furthest north she has been is Shetland and west to Belfast and Dublin, to the Isle of Man, east to Felixstowe Container Port, and south as far as Wareham in Dorset.

Housing, Askew said, is the main issue in Britain and overseas. She also visited large infrastructure projects, including the Thames Tideway Tunnel, commenting: “I wonder where the labour force is going to come from for these [projects] along with 250,000 new houses.”

Askew ended her speech by making some “serious” points about the future of planning.

“Our profession is under threat like never before and an even more fundamental change might be on the way, in England at least.

"The very principles of state-led planning are proposed for change and this change threatens the integrity of our planning system, which we are known and admired for all around the world.”

Askew said planners around the country have told her they are struggling with the legal and regulatory reforms, with general agreement that they are for not for the better.

To guarantee the future of planning and the profession, Askew said everyone must join together; “academics and practitioners, public and private sectors - and we must take other professions with us because it threatens all we have achieve over the last 101 years.”

Following a standing ovation for her speech, Askew passed on the ceremonial livery collar to Williams.

He said his theme for 2016 is placing planning and planners at the centre of the debate.

“To try to simplify the message: planning has a relationship with people in the communities that we serve, and politicians who are democratically elected by those communities. We have a relationship with people and politicians, and they have a relationship between themselves. We are all striving for a better society, a better sense of place within the community.

“If you take planning and planners out of that triangular relationship, the prospect of delivering balanced communities where people want to live, work and spend their leisure time in, and that politicians strive for won’t be realised and the triangle collapses.”

Talking about his year ahead, Williams said he will use his visits to different nations and regions to listen and learn from the “positive influences” planners are making to their communities.

Seeing and sharing examples of good practice is, he said, the “most important” learning tool.

He also said 2016 will be an important year internationally. “The RTPI will be doing everything we can to influence the debate with our global partners in the run up to the hugely important Habitat III meeting in Quito, Ecuador.”

More from the inauguration ceremony can be found on the RTPI website.

Angle of attack: An interview with Phil Williams