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Role models and resilience – plus the shock of the new

Carrying the torch Credit Zara Picken

Our new monthly columnist Louise Brooke-Smith reflects on her role models and explains how planners must adapt to challenging situations with creativity.

It’s challenging taking over a role when you’ve admired the previous incumbent for years, especially when they’ve done a great job and have an enviable reputation. Should it be replication or innovation? 

I’m not one for imitating others. I’d rather be me, with my own approach. After all, that’s the current mantra; #BeYourself. So this will indeed #BeMe with my take on ‘planning and beyond’ that feels pertinent and worth shouting about. Sometimes I will hit a nerve, other times I will be political. I hope I can combine the two without inciting a riot.  

I’ll draw on some of my mentors and the role models who have lit the path I have chosen to travel. I’ll try to stay topical and relevant, but also push the boundaries a little. After all, the worst thing the planning community should be is insular, monocentric or – heaven forbid – boring.  

So I’ll start by shouting about the need to recognise our role models. We all have them. It’s not just a trendy thing for students in this long-awaited era of diversity and inclusion. We can all name people who have inspired, impressed or even shocked us.  

And that impact can hit us at any time. Indeed, age should bring a greater ability to listen to different views as opposed to becoming entrenched in one political dogma.  

I was reasonably left-wing when starting out on my journey. Miners’ strikes and demos in Sheffield and being kettled by police when Maggie Thatcher came to town; all made lasting impressions. So I was as surprised as anyone when, after seeing Meryl Streep at her best, portraying Mrs T’s rise and fall from glory, I had to admit admiring her tenacity to keep going when thwarted in her early years. No matter what the politics, that element of her character was impressive.  

Why am I saying this? Because when circumstances get tough simply because ‘that’s life’, then it helps to remember that other people have pushed through equally difficult situations.  

“The planning community needs to pull on the ability to be imaginative when given seemingly impossible situations”

Notwithstanding the claim that ‘austerity’ is now behind us, local government funding is falling through cracks in the pavement and the ‘planning system’ is being blamed for all the evils of the housing crisis. Developers are seen as money-grabbing bastards and there are people sleeping rough every night outside Homes England offices in Westminster. If that’s not irony at its worst, I don’t know what is.

So the planning community needs to pull on the ability to be imaginative when given seemingly impossible situations; finding new ways to achieve and support appropriate development. That might mean reminding ourselves that other seemingly impossible situations have been addressed. Would it be too glib to cite the Good Friday Agreement or the release of Nelson Mandela?  

What has that got to do with the systematic problems of the British planning system and the Herculean challenge of buildings homes in the right places at the right price? Well, perhaps remembering our individual role models and the reason they are important to us can instil a renewed appetite to find solutions, as opposed to wringing our hands and claiming it’s all too hard.  

Planners need to be at the heart of things, bringing their own sense of fair play and inclusivity with tenacity and dogged determination. So, a mixture of Mandela and Thatcher – that should be a match for the economic challenges ahead! And to add to the mix I will draw on my role models John Pilger and Barbara Castle, who have shaped my approach to life. Now, together, that’s an awesome dinner party!

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK Head of Development and Strategy Planning

Illustration | Zara Picken


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