Reports over the years have consistently recognised a fundamental skills deficit amongst planners; that associated with design. But is there a more fundamental deficit in our ability to actually plan?
Policies and regulation as a substitute for vision
Search for definitions of (town, urban, spatial) planning online and numerous variations appear. My favourite is: “The planning of the way in which towns and cities are built in order to make them pleasant to live in”. Whilst simplistic, the definition nicely captures i) that there is an active process of actually ‘planning’ the future of places, and ii) that this process is a positive one, about making places better. My least favourite defines planning as: “The control of development by a local government authority”. One would think there was a clue in the name, but apparently, according to this definition, planning is simply about control and to actually proactively plan anything is not required.
Yet, might the second definition more closely reflect the reality of planning in the UK today? If it does, it helps to explain the continuing concern about skills deficits in planning and the associated often heard call (most recently in the Farrell Review) for planning to move towards a more proactive ‘big picture’ variety and away from its relentless focus on regulation and minor householder developments. That said, esteemed colleagues of mine here at the Bartlett School of Planning recently argued that ‘The benefits of planning regulation should be recognised’, including this as number three of their Five Radical Ideas for a Better Planning System. I agree, clearly we need to be careful not to devalue the vital regulatory function of planning and the contribution it makes to both shaping our cities and to ensuring equitable outcomes from development, but at the same time we should be clear that regulation should follow a plan and that the plan should have something to say beyond “we will control your development and here’s how …”.
As of July 2015 only 64% of local planning authorities had an adopted local plan (around 25% an NPPF compliant one), and 18% had not published any sort of plan at all since 2004. In the face of such figures one has to wonder how committed most local authorities are to their planning function. Perhaps, as some have argued, when difficult development decisions need to be made, it is easier to derogate these responsibilities and simply blame national government and the NPPF (the default policy framework in the absence of an adopted local plan) for what transpires. But that is overly cynical. Clearly many local planning authorities are operating in a context of the largest cuts to any local government service and within a national planning system that has been notoriously changeable. What is incontestable, however, is the absence of any real vision in all but a minority of the plans that have been adopted; most of which offer collections of fairly generic development management policies as a substitute for spatial vision. Today, we have policies but not plans.
A case-in-point is the recent winner of a high profile national award for plan making. Whilst undoubtedly an exemplary set of policies and representing a model approach to both engaging local people in the process of planning and of cutting across and integrating sectors, the ‘imagination’ and ‘creative approaches’ that the shortlisting blub for the award promises seems to be in remarkably short supply when one peruses its hundred plus pages. Indeed, like so many local plans, replace the name of the city for another and 95% of the content would be equally applicable elsewhere. The ‘spatial’, in this sense, seems to have been lost from planning, to be replaced with the ‘standard’; the same standard and worthy but ultimately unremarkable content that is seen from one end of the country to the other. This, I emphasise, is not meant to be a criticism of the good planners and politicians of said city, they are clearly doing an excellent job within the constraints laid at their door and it is always very easy to be critical from afar. It is, however, a criticism of the context within which planners work which too often has allowed the ambitions of our planners to sink too low. So who is to blame?
It begins with education
At this point it is traditional to blame the government, and we should all have concerns about the devastating impact of austerity cuts on local planning services, but one only has to look at some of the other short-listed plans for the same plan making award to see that this is not the whole story. Here there is an interesting contrast between the statutory and the non-statutory plans up for the same award, with the non-statutory examples often replete with vision, demonstrating that spatial ambition is possible even within the existing planning system, albeit outside the ‘adopted’ framework. To my mind, this suggests that we should make it far easier and quicker to adopt and subsequently modify and change our plans. If Patrick Abercrombie produced his momentous Greater London Plan (1944) in a year, then even taking account of our greater sensitivity today towards engaging all the communities of interest in the process, we should still be able to produce and adopt plans in the same sort of time frame and with at least some of the same ambition.
So why is such planning so often the exception rather than the norm? A good degree of the blame lies with the way we educate planners in the UK.
The criticism that the post-war divergence of architecture and planning has led to a drift of planning towards the social sciences and away from design is nothing new; the result being that planners increasingly set their plans within a context of economic and social analysis, whilst the physical context within which those economic and social interactions take place was for a long time largely ignored or considered irrelevant to address the great planning challenges of the time. This situation persisted into the 1980s and 1990s when even this very narrow sort of planning was supressed in favour of the market. When planning returned in the mid to late 1990s, it was the Urban Task Force of 1999 that most forcefully pointed out that the economic, social (and now environmental) had to go hand in hand with the physical (a design perspective) if our strategies for urban areas were ever to be effective. Shortly after, however, the RTPI made the fatal mistake of adopting a recommendation from its own Education Commission of 2003 to move the standard postgraduate education in planning from two years to one year following a non-cognate undergraduate degree.
The Education Commission was set up to address a perceived although in fact largely illusory crisis in planning education (undergraduate planning education was indeed in decline but postgraduate was already reviving and growing). The decision to dumb down postgraduate education therefore flew in the face of practice almost everywhere else in the developed world where two years of postgraduate study continues to be the minimum for planners to understand and engage with the multifarious complexities of urban and regional systems. At the time I was on the RTPI Council and remember arguing that if architects took five years (at university) to understand and design the (by comparison with cities) relatively insignificant and simple entities that are buildings, then reducing planners’ training to one year seemed completely inadequate. As it turned out I was one of only two who spoke out against the proposal which was voted through almost unanimously.
My particular concern at the time was based around the idea that graduates could possibly hope to both engage with the full gamut of generic planning knowledge, skills and aptitudes, as well as specialising in a clearly identified aspect of planning, all in one year. In particular, I knew from my own experience teaching urban design to planners that to specialise in urban design took time, and time was the one thing that the reforms to planning education was denying. Thus, whilst there is still much excellent planning education being delivered, its content is guided by a tick box process based on generic and largely meaningless ‘leaning outcomes’, not one of which actually includes the ability to make plans. For its part design is talked about only in the context of something to be ‘evaluated’ (in other words not actually done). The result, predictably, are accredited programmes with virtually no design, and very little real planning.
Call me old fashioned, but to my mind planners should be able to plan, and planning should be done in a creative manner that inspires communities, development actors and towns and cities to greater things. Without a focus on how to shape cities for the better and the time to develop the creative skills necessary, we are dooming our future planners (and planning) to policy and regulation as a substitute for planning in the full sense of the word implied by the definition with which I began.
What can be done?
At UCL we have long been concerned to address this gap, and have developed a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes that have, at their heart, processes of generating visions for places. These include, our BSc Urban Planning Design and Management, where design is taught alongside planning at every step through the three year programme; or our MSc Urban Design & City Planning which explores planning primarily through the lens of urban design (with a particular focus on creative local plan-making), rather than the other way around. The first of these is, of course, an undergraduate programme, the like of which relatively few planners do today. The second, interestingly, whilst extremely popular amongst international students (who typically come to us from existing design intensive undergraduate courses), is less often chosen by our domestic market (who don’t).
As one recent commentator on the state of planning observed, “For the sake of our cities we need to make planning cool again”. To my mind this will only happen if planners once again demonstrate more ambition and vision in the way they plan and this should begin by recognising the limitations of our educational processes for planners. One year masters programmes are clearly here to stay, but we should look to means to reinvigorate the undergraduate route, where the 3+1 (bachelors + masters) format gives planners the luxury of time to develop their skills and mature into the role.
Even for our postgraduate courses we can do so much more to ensure they move beyond the abstract, theoretical and critical to engage directly with the art of actually planning places for the better. This should involve:
- Moving out of the classroom and engaging directly with real places
- Putting creative project work at the heart of our curricula
- Thinking beyond the academic dissertation as the culmination of planning programmes to contemplate the individual major project
- Including plan-making as a compulsory element in planning education
- Teaching planners, once more, how to express their ideas graphically as well as in writing
- Encouraging (and supporting) more planners to take urban design as a post-professional qualification
- Encouraging (and supporting) more architects to take planning as a post-graduate qualification
- Giving prospective planners a real sense of mission and empowerment to take forward into and sustain them in practice.
Oh and a few other things …
Beyond education it should involve:
- Properly resourcing the plan-making function in local planning authorities
- Meaningfully penalising local authorities without up-to-date adopted plans and giving additional freedoms and responsibilities to those that have them (e.g. the freedom to set planning fees locally)
- Re-building urban design sections in local planning authorities
- Engaging in the sorts of non-statutory urban design frameworks and strategies that can express a more proactive and aspirational response to place
- Allowing the results of these frameworks to inform the ‘vision’ within the statutory adopted plan
- Working to radically simplify and streamline the process of adopting local plans
- Raising the status of planning within local government, with the post of chief planner once again a top table position.
None of this will be easy, but if we want to see aspirational, proactive, and even ‘cool’ planning again, this is what we need to do.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL
 DCLG figures