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Young Planners' Conference round-up

Words: Simon Wicks
Belfast young planners

Read our selection of stories touching on some of the key issues and highlights from this year's Young Planners’ Conference held in Belfast on 14-15 October.

RTPI calls for Better Planning champions

Young planners have been urged to become champions of the profession for an RTPI programme aimed at providing practical planning support to fellow professionals and other audiences.

Better Planning aims to demonstrate how planning is “part of the solution to major social, economic and environmental challenges”, the RTPI’s Joe Kilroy told the Young Planners’ Conference.

The programme will focus on three of these: housing affordability, technology and the growth of cities, and climate change. Young planners who volunteer to become champions will be invited to share their best practice stories with other members and wider audiences at events across the UK, Kilroy explained.

“We’ve tried cutting planning resources and it doesn’t work, especially in terms of housing,” he said. “We want placemakers to understand the wider benefits that planning can deliver.

Members who are interested in becoming champions for Better Planning can contact Joe Kilroy on [email protected]

Young planners given President’s Special Award

Janet Askew, immediate past president of the RTPI (for 2015-16) took the opportunity offered by the conference to give the President’s Special Award for Planning Achievement 2015 to the RTPI young planners.

Presenting the award to chair of Northern Ireland Young Planners Kim Boal, current Young Planner of the Year Emma Lancaster and her predecessor Viral Desai, Askew said: “It’s the young planners who keep us in touch.” She added that the award was “to thank you for the fulfilment you brought to me career, and for your enthusiasm for promoting town planning.”

Planning for change

With a conference theme of ‘planning for change’, it’s no surprise that the subject of planning’s ability to bring about change was discussed more than once.

In the opening session, Daniel Mohamed, founder of Urban Intelligence, questioned the ability of planning, distracted by its strong emphasis on process, to achieve the changes it set out to accomplish – specifically in relation to housing and climate change.

In response, RTPI vice-president Stephen Wilkinson said: “Clearly things do change. Sixty or 70 years ago, we had smog in London, then we had the Clean Air Act. More recently we’ve seen what’s happened in East London with regeneration”

“He went on: “We do deliver change. There are some strategic issues which tip and turn. And there has been a shift because we are increasingly tied up with a global economy – it doesn’t always bring us the benefits it promises.”

“Too often we look at planning as too much of a regulatory process, coming at the end of decisions about development. We need to get out there and engage in a way that becomes second nature”

However, Northern Ireland’s director of planning policy in the Department for Infrastructure, Angus Kerr, took the opportunity to appeal for a “culture change” in planning towards a more assertive sense of itself. “It’s hearts and minds,” he said. “Too often we look at planning as too much of a regulatory process, coming at the end of decisions about development. We need to get out there and engage in a way that becomes second nature.”

The conference also demonstrated that change is also in the broader environment in which planning takes place – in climate change, technological change and political change. Planning must, speakers repeatedly stressed, find ways to meet the challenges presented by these changes in ways that result in more sustainable and more equitable urban environments – “cities for people”, as the conference’s most common refrain would have it.

As conference organiser and chair of Northern Ireland Young Planners Kim Boal concluded: “Change is constant and it’s here. Planning for change is hard work and it’s not going to happen overnight.

But, she added: “We have to remember who we are doing this great change for.”

Planning fights back

Another common refrain at the Young Planners conference was the need for planning to find an assertive voice to challenge the forces that dismiss planning and its ability to contribute to solving the challenges of the modern world.

Presenters consistently challenged the view that the “market” should be left to determine where and how development occurs. This, more than one speaker asserted, tended to lead to mediocre development that was neither sustainable nor equitable.

Leading the broadside against the “anti-planners” was the RTPI’s deputy head of policy and research, Mike Harris. In his presentation on ‘Poverty, place and inequality’, Harris highlighted recent dismissals of planning as an obstruction by think tanks, media commentators and senior politicians – including the former Prime Minister David Cameron, and the former planning minister Nick Boles.

The deregulatory, anti-planning “reflex”, said Harris, was born out of a “fatalistic” world view that wouldn’t accept that interventions in place could improve the prospects of the people living there. Characterising the anti-planning view, he said: “There are some people who say place doesn’t really matter… poorer people tend to live in poor quality places because they are cheaper. But places themselves don’t affect people’s lives and well-being.”

Moreover, he said, the attachment of some commentators and politicians to an “abstract” view of markets ignored the “reality” of how markets really work in practice. “The reality is far more complex and planning is often not the reason that things don’t get built.”

Drawing on RTPI research, Harris said that the value of planning lay at least in part in its ability to create sustainable markets that were beneficial to all parties involved in development. He cited the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust as an example of the way in which planning can work with the market to “create better markets that deliver the places that people want”.

“John Burns didn’t talk so much about an institute. He talked about creating a movement that had as its objective emancipating people from the beasts of poverty and ill health”

This was achieved by market intervention by the council which “derisked” sites that developers were otherwise unwilling to take on. Profits were shared by council and developer, and land uplift went into improving green space.

Lack of planning and poor planning, Harris said. “wastes the potential of places and people”. He continued: “This is all stuff that we planners know. But we need to be making this argument to those who don’t understand a broader and more social approach to planning and place.

“It goes back to the founding of the RTPI. John Burns didn’t talk so much about an institute. He talked about creating a movement that had as its objective emancipating people from the beasts of poverty and ill health.

“When anti-planners say it’s about statism and restricts freedom, our argument has to be the opposite. Without planning we are not going to emancipate communities to live the lives they want to live.”

RTPI vice-president Stephen Wilkinson reinforced the message. “Issues of decline have a spatial dimension," he stressed. "Communities often have poor access to facilities and to the public transport that gets them to places of employment.”

He went on: “As planners you are the guardians of local democracy. You are the gatekeepers. You enable local people to take decisions on their environment. Without you, local democracy is under threat.”

Manchester to host Young Planners' Conference 2017

Manchester will be the host city for the Young Planners Conference 2017, with the even to be organised by the North West Young Planners.

The theme for the conference will be Healthy, Happy Place and People: Planning for Well-being.

Details on dates and location are yet to be released. To keep up to date, however, contact [email protected] to be added to the mailing list or keep an eye on the RTPI website.

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The Young Planner's Conference - in quotes