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New RTPI President, Janet Askew, speech in full

23 January 2015

Speech of Janet Askew for the inauguration of president of the Royal Town Planning Institute

Wednesday 14 January 2015


Good evening ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, friends and family.

Let me begin by thanking Cath Ranson who has been the president in our centenary year of 2014. Cath has been a truly dedicated and committed president. She has given 80 presentations, travelled miles, been to every nation and region of the UK, as well as Australia, America and Hong Kong, celebrating the centenary. We have calculated that she has travelled at least 29,000 miles during her year. And let us not forget, that all Cath’s work for the RTPI starts with a 6 hour trip from her home in West Wales just to get to London.

Every Friday, the presidential team and the officers of the RTPI have a tele conference and I can honestly say that I don’t think Cath has ever telephoned from her own home or office – she has called in from station platforms, trains, lay-bys, from the remotest lanes of mid Wales.  Cath Ranson has worked incredibly hard this year – raising the expectations of our members, and setting the bar so high. A daunting task lies ahead for the incoming president.

I know you have had a wonderful year, and thank you very much, Cath, from everyone for such devotion to the role of president.

You deserve a rest!

I should also like to thank the officers of the RTPI who support the presidential office, and all the staff who work very hard to promote the RTPI in its activities on behalf of the members.

It is a great honour to have been elected to be president of the RTPI for 2015, at the start of another century of planning. 

I am determined to ensure that we build on the success of our centenary and engage with more people to promote planning – what I call the challenge of persuasion – proving the value of planning to society.

I became a planner because I had a utopian view, an emotional view that planning could improve the quality of life and give people a voice about how they lived. 

And I feel lucky to have chosen a career that is so diverse. I am privileged because as an academic, reading and learning about town planning is my job, as well as working with young people and sharing their ideas.

Planning is under enormous pressure at the moment, and we often have to justify ourselves, but I am constantly amazed at the number of people I meet who, without realising it, are talking about planning.  At present, we are re-discovering the link between health and planning. Imagine my delight when my daughter, training to become a nurse, for her first essay at university, had to analyse the built environment in Tower Hamlets for its impact on the health of children.

And even though I have not managed to persuade either of my children, Jamie or Rosa, to be town planners, this drew together an important relationship for me – between what I do and the experiences of a nurse in a deprived London community.

I was brought up in Birkenhead, a town which even then was in decline, but my parents always took my brother and me on holiday to remote rural areas, to Snowdonia and the Lake District, places that I later came to understand were part of one of the greatest achievements of the British post war planning system - the national parks. 

I recognised their beauty and I liked it. 

And when I was 15, and enjoying geography at school, I went to a talk given by Audrey Lees, the then chief planner of Liverpool City Council. I can remember little of what she said, but she inspired me to believe that planning could do something about the disparities in my home town of Birkenhead, which actually has a glorious history of planning - the first park in Britain which provided the inspiration for Central Park in New York; Port Sunlight where my grandfather was one of the first inhabitants in the 1890s; and in the 1960s, Birkenhead was chosen by Tony Gibson for the first exercise in ‘Planning for Real’; and Patrick Abercrombie lived in Birkenhead.

I left that meeting with Audrey Lees knowing that I would be a town planner.  Recently, I have been told stories by others who knew her and worked with her, and they tell me that she inspired them to become zealous missionaries for town planning.

Interestingly, in the third edition of his book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Ebenezer Howard also spoke about missionaries, adding a postscript in which he wrote,

‘Woman’s influence is too often ignored. When Garden City is built, as it shortly will be, woman’s share in the work will be found to have been a large one. Women are among our most active missionaries.’

Maybe his predictions are coming true – in 2015, four of the built environment professions have female presidents! 

And I hope we can act as role models for young women joining the profession. 

But how can we, (and including the men this time), all of us in the RTPI, encourage people to be zealous missionaries for town planning?

How can we promote planning further so that everyone – students, planners, politicians and just people in general act as champions of town planning?

There are a lot of opportunities to do this.

And I want to mention just three of them: internationalisation, education, community planning.

During my career, I have worked abroad – in universities in Europe and latterly in China and Taiwan where I have been teaching for several years in two universities. And what has surprised me most is the influence that British town planning and history has had.  

I have even marked essays on Ebenezer Howard’s ideas in Taiwan!

I saw this influence at first hand. When I was in Beijing last year, I was invited to visit the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design – they advise the Chinese government on planning matters.  I was interested to hear about their conservation plans, and when I walked through their offices to see the plans, there was a portrait gallery of famous town planners along one wall of the office, and I was astounded (and moved) to see that it started with Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes - Chinese planners, in Beijing, working on conservation plans, being influenced by planning in Britain.

I also found out that the RTPI is held in very high esteem in China. In November, on behalf of the RTPI, and by invitation from the British Embassy in China, I visited Chengdu to join a trade mission to promote British consultancy in urban planning and they particularly wanted us to promote ideas about garden cities.  

There may be differences in scale! (I have never seen scale like it) but we are all working on the same issues - to provide liveable places, better public transport, sustainable housing and a fair distribution of public services. It was not the design of garden cities that they were interested in, but the economics of them – the financial and land arrangements in the early garden cities – how to capture the value from land for the good of the community - something that I am particularly interested in.

This meeting with so many British planning consultants alongside Chinese planners made me realise that there are still many international opportunities for the RTPI, not least of all to increase membership, and this brings me onto my second point about education.

I have spent a large part of my career working in the University of the West of England in Bristol, and I am often asked about planning schools when I am abroad - how do we maintain and uphold such high standards in planning education?

And of course my answer is partly - the RTPI!

I see it as one of the main roles of the RTPI to ensure and guarantee the future quality of the profession – through the accreditation of planning schools, and co-operation with universities on research.

Despite all this acknowledgement of our history as far afield as Beijing, despite an almost daily mention of planning on the radio and television, nevertheless, there is a real crisis in the recruitment of planning students to UK universities. For nearly 20 years, there has been a downward trend in undergraduate numbers - with the most marked drop in home students. In some universities, international students outnumber home students.  

But this means that many graduates from British planning schools return to their home countries to work, wherever that might be, (and I met many in China), and they are eligible to be members of the institute.  

So we should explore the opportunities of working with these planners - as a starting point through universities and British consultants with international offices - to recruit more members to the RTPI, and I hope to do some of this during my year as president.

And if working abroad does not interest graduates, then there is plenty of really thought- provoking work to be carried out in the UK.  We need to engage young people to help them see that planning is relevant to them, and that many of the issues that they face, come under the auspices of town planning.

When I left university I was only the second student to work in a planning consultancy, and last year from my university, 90% of students got jobs in the private sector.  For as long as I have been a planner, there have been discussions about the role of planners in the public and private sectors, and some students have told me that working for private clients can test the principles of planning for the public interest. It has ever been thus.

Students always tell me that they learn more in their first job than they do at university! Maybe that was true for me too!  My first job gave me a very good start – and many others who worked for Shankland Cox Partnership have told me the same.

It was a radical consultancy for its time, with a grand history of pioneering plans, and organised in multi-disciplinary teams, (usually led by planners, of course!) and the people I met there have been my friends ever since.

Today, many of the issues we discussed then about the problems of, say, housing working people in London, still hold true – this issue of income disparity continues to be one of the most important problems we still need to tackle. 

The prosperity of all our major cities is jeopardised by a serious lack of housing for nurses, teachers, emergency workers – and young people who want to be independent.  The RTPI will embark on a new research programme in 2015, which includes addressing some of the inequalities between places and people.

So I think it is our job as town planners, whoever we work for, to be creative - and to steer the desires of developers and communities by promoting the tools of planning to make better places.  

And what better array of issues for a young student to study?

And this brings me to my third point – community planning.  The RTPI will also be looking at ways of widening community engagement and governance.  And I started this talk suggesting that we have a job to do to persuade everyone that planning is in the public interest.

In some ways, the backdrop to my career has been public consultation, how to involve communities in planning, and some planners have been facilitating and working with communities for years – sometimes through Planning Aid.

Neighbourhood planning offers opportunities for more people to be involved in the planning of their own areas. And communities need the help of qualified town planners to prepare their plans. This is reassuring in one way – planners really do have skills and knowledge to offer, but we also know that local authorities are very short staffed, and if we want to create good plans, then recruitment to the profession is vital.

I was sceptical at first that this new form of neighbourhood planning would work, especially in urban areas, but recently, I was invited to a community meeting of the Somers Town Planning and Development Working Group, in an inner city area in London, just near to Euston Station, not yet gentrified, to hear that their new neighbourhood plan is nearing completion.

And today, this requires us all to understand property markets and how they work. Only then we will be equipped to negotiate and argue with big business and developers on equal terms - to be creative to provide social facilities and accessible and affordable housing.

I have worked in many economic contexts during my career. When I worked for Shetland Islands Council during the oil boom, again I was lucky to be part of some really interesting and innovative approaches to working in partnership with global companies – the oil industry.  That small and determined rural islands council with a population of just 18,000 negotiated some ingenious capturing of values from oil revenues, which ensured that Shetland has remained prosperous ever since – a sort of early community infrastructure levy. 

And by the way, there were only four planners working in that office in 1976! And two of them (us) were graduates!

In conclusion, we know it is important to celebrate good ideas and special places to illustrate the impact that good planning has had.

Last year, RTPI in Scotland initiated a competition for the public to nominate the best places in Scotland, and my first job as the vice –president was to award the prizes. Dundee won the competition – not for what exists now, but for the hope and ambition that the new plans for Tayside give to the city of Dundee. In other words, people recognised how good planning can create good places to live.   

This year, during my presidency, I am very happy to announce a new competition for ENGLAND’S BEST PLACES, and I know that our RTPI colleagues will be encouraging entries from all the English regions. 

And I will visit those success stories of planning throughout the United Kingdom (and beyond) during my year as president, and I hope to gather examples of excellent planning to commemorate my year, to pass on to the next generation – in Britain and overseas - in my teaching.  

I always say (warn maybe!) to new students on their first day that once you are a planner, you are always a planner – wherever you are – on holiday, flying (one of the best things ever for a town planner!), looking out of the window, walking to work – you will be observing the environment and working out what would make it better. 

Your work becomes your hobby. And I would say that for forty years, my work has been my hobby.

I want to thank everyone for their support, those of you who have helped me on my way to becoming a planner, and especially those of you who have given me the ambition and drive to take on the job of president - and special thanks of course to all those members who voted for me to be your president for 2015.

There is one last thing I want to say - to young planners - be radical in your ideas, like the earliest and most successful planners of 100 years ago. You are the policy makers of the future and you don’t need to follow the status quo but challenge it. The future of planning is in the hands of the young planners, and we must do all we can to make planning an attractive career option for potential students.

Thank you.

I now invite you all to join us in a glass of wine to toast the 101st year of the Royal Town Planning Institute.