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RTPI Blog: A year to be proud of

Dr Peter Geraghty on east of England trip

Dr Peter Geraghty has returned to normal life after his year in office. Here, the institute's latest past-president looks back on an eventful 2013

At my inauguration I expressed the opinion that as a profession we had become inhibited and reticent to proclaim and espouse the vital and valuable contribution that planners make to civil society and the national wellbeing.(1) This reticence does nothing to allay the widespread perception of planning in the general media and political circles as a purely bureaucratic, procedure-based activity.(2)
This perception, particularly in England, of planning practice as an activity that is undertaken substantially by a local authority as a mechanistic process belies and undervalues the power of planning as a sphere of professional activity. A flavour of this perception can be traced back as far as our first president, Thomas Adams, who became frustrated with ‘the routine of planning control ... [and] the lack of opportunity to do constructive work in planning’.(3)
More recently it has been argued by McConnell that the problem with planning theory and planning practice is that planners seldom have to ask themselves what the reason is for what they are doing.(4) This is reinforced by the point Tewder-Jones(5) has argued that planners have been forced to dispense with the theoretical justification for recommendations and simply provide the facts of each case. 
In my view, one of the outcomes of this trend has been the growing tendency for tweaking and amending the legislative framework underpinning planning practice and the preoccupation with procedural change as a means of promoting growth, which has in turn eroded the value of planning as a professional activity.
This has further reinforced a negative perception of planning. That is why I made it my mission during my presidential year to showcase and highlight our achievements as chartered planners.
I am proud of the profession and proud of planners. I can honestly say that having had the benefit of travelling around the UK and Ireland, I have been impressed by the commitment and dedication of planners in spite of all these challenges, and in the face of such negative perceptions, to making the planning system work for them, their clients and their communities.
One of the ways of challenging these negative perceptions is to show the positive outcomes from planning.
It is so important that this work is recognised. For example, the London Planning Awards and our Awards for Planning Excellence demonstrate the high calibre of planning output. Good planning has always been about enabling the right development in the right place and the right time. The National Planning Policy Framework emphasises the importance of good design and the entrants to these Awards illustrate not only good design but good planning. The institute’s awards for Planning Excellence was an incredibly successful event and I for one was proud to be associated with it. We should all take pride not only in the successful entrants but all those shortlisted. 

"One of the ways of challenging these negative perceptions is to show the positive outcomes from planning"

On my regional visit to the to the South East I was impressed by the adaptability of planners in Cherwell District Council, who were determined to continue to promote Bicester as an eco-town in spite of difficult circumstances and develop an environmentally focused and sustainable community. 
This resilience very much reminds me of the words of Thomas Adams, who said: “The best plan is the one which presents the highest ideals that can be realised in practice.”(6)
In the East of England Region I had the opportunity to see the work of planners in South Cambridgeshire District Council in creating sustainable places. For example, the authority applied the learning from developing the new community of Cambourne in creating the proposed settlement of Northstowe. Engagement and participation is vital to the sustainable development process and to dispelling the misconceptions about planning and its objectives. 
Sustainable development doesn’t happen by chance; it requires commitment by built environment professionals. The work of planners at South Cambridgeshire District Council embodies this principle.
On my Yorkshire visit I had the opportunity to see to Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, assisted by planners in the private sector, work with a private landowner and a government agency, Atlas, to promote housing by means of an urban extension at Basingthorpe Farm. This is another example of a positive approach to planning, working in partnership to bring about sustainable development. Creating a sustainable community was the shared objective of all those involved. Sustainability should be at the heart of what we do as a built profession.
As part of my presidential visits I met students and academics in universities throughout the country, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Oxford, Plymouth and Dublin. These young people represent the future of our profession. I was heartened by the calibre of students and their enthusiasm for the profession. They also exemplified enterprise and initiative that was very impressive. For example, in Dublin two recent graduates organised a competition for planning students to find a design solution for an inner-city development site. This competition called ‘Space Invaders’ was a very successful event and helped raise the profile of planning students from all over Ireland.
In Scotland young planners played a pivotal role in organising a conference in Edinburgh in February 2013. This Young Planners’ Conference was attended by the Scottish planning minister Derek Mackay, who chose the occasion to affirm his support for planning in bringing Scotland out of recession. Professor Cliff Hague and John McNairney, Chief Planner for the Scottish Government, also spoke at the conference. The calibre of speakers was a tribute to the importance of the conference and the value of continued engagement with government.
Over the year I attended events from Oxford to Leeds and from Edinburgh to Dublin organised by young planners employed by top planning practices. I was heartened that the next generation of planners have the skills and confidence to take a leading role in the profession. 

"Sustainability should be at the heart of what we do as a built profession"

At the beginning of June I took part in a seminar at Cardiff City Hall as part of an RTPI Study into the operation of planning committees in Wales. The final report for the study identified the clear and continual tension between the roles that the local member is asked to take on when serving on a planning committee. This potentially valuable piece of work deserves wider circulation and could form the basis for further research on the key issue of the professional and political nexus in reaching planning decisions.
In April I had the privilege of attending the American Planning Association Conference in Chicago. I took the opportunity to discuss the comparative practice of planning in the UK and Ireland. I expressed my opinion that since devolution planning legislation and practice has gradually diverged across all the nations as individual governments have sought to modify this shared genesis of legislation to their own needs and requirements and to fulfil their own aspirations. The recent global recession has accelerated this divergence of practice as each nation strives to use the planning system to promote growth and development. For this reason I believe that planning in the British Isles – that is to say, the UK and the Republic of Ireland – is at a watershed.
At the beginning of my presidential year I was dubbed a positive thinker. Having travelled the country and seen the range of planning practice I remain positive and optimistic. On reflection, I believe it has indeed been a year to be proud of. 
However, in our centenary year we must continue to pursue the case for planning and to promote it as a profession founded in theory but advanced by years of practical experience. As Cherry7 has said, as planners we are charged with a profound purpose in building the physical conditions of a better way of life.
Presidential Address Dartmouth House, Charles Street, London, 16 January 2013; also Planning Magazine (8 February 2013), p24.
For example, see GE Cherry, Town Planning in Britain since 1900 (Oxford, 1996), p180.
T Adams, State, regional and city planning in America, p3, Adams papers quoted in 
M Simpson, Thomas Adams, 1871-1940, in GE Cherry (ed.), Pioneers in British Planning, (London, 1981), p24.
S McConnell, Theories for Planning: An Introduction (London, 1981), p74.
M Tewder-Jones, Development control and the legitimacy of planning decisions, Town Planning Review (1995), vol. 66 (2), p173.
T Adams, State, regional and city planning in America, p9, Adams papers quoted in M Simpson, Thomas Adams, 1871-1940, in GE Cherry (ed.), Pioneers in British Planning (London, 1981), p38.
GE Cherry, The Evolution of British Town Planning (Leighton Buzzard, 1974), p137.


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