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Planning: The lead role in the play about place?

Actors on stage

Three pieces of work, all published last month by the RTPI, show the institute moving onto the front foot. The papers, timed to coincide with the RTPI’s centenary year, are as much a call to arms for planners as they are cogent arguments in favour of planning’s role.

Martin ReadThe first paper, on spatial planning, is poart of the Planning Horizons series and was introduced by Dr Michael Harris at the recent RTPI Wales conference. In a nutshell, it’s a strong, powerfully argued document with a clear message – that planning isn’t merely a component in place making, it’s the lead actor in the play. Note the phrase ‘lead actor’ – not just participant. That sounds like fighting talk. Harris made the case that a lack of spatial thinking in development decisions can ‘destabilise the environment and lead to unbalanced, unsustainable economic growth’. Now that’s fighting talk indeed.
The second and third papers are policy papers. In both The Value Of Planning and Fostering Growth: Understanding And Strengthening The Economic Benefits Of Planning, there’s further talk of planners’ roles as ‘economic actors’.
It’s great to see the RTPI fighting to establish a higher public profile for the profession, seeking to generate some much-needed public goodwill following several years of sly remarks and casually tossed barbs from politicians. 
Presenting the planning professional as the fall guy in content-light but electorate-friendly quotes such as “we shall prevent the planning system from being a barrier to progress” is ill-considered, unprofessional and unbecoming of whichever office the speaker holds and inadequate.

"It's great to see the RTPI fighting to establish a higher profile for the profession, seeking to generate some much needed public goodwill"

Because, after all, what is the case? That planners get in the way? That they obstruct, prevent and curtail? This is what makes a debate around spatial planning so valuable – it brings into focus the very point of the profession. It puts the case that, in fact, planners make things happen: they co-ordinate, create and counsel. Arguments to the contrary may be inconvenient to those who make them, but if the profession’s response is “you’re fundamentally wrong - and here’s an inarguable series of reasons why”, then so be it.
There’s a need to continually press home the message that the professional opinion of the planner isn’t some casual afterthought, but rather a considered and crafted response based on precedent, process and practicalities. After years of seeing planning marginalised and belittled, it’s surely worth applauding the positive narrative behind the RTPI’s new papers. Will they make a difference? We’ll see.
Martin Read is the editor of The Planner

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