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A year in RTPI research

09 December 2015 Author: Dr Michael Harris

In July, I asked whether academic planning research is serving the needs of practitioners. It’s a question that we also need to ask about the RTPI’s own research work. After all, members pay for our work and deserve to know that we’re spending their money wisely.

So are we doing the right things?

Making the economic case for planning

A priority for this year has been the economic value of planning. We’ve focused on this theme because of course this is where planning is most regularly criticised by some policymakers and commentators. The argument we’ve been making is that good planning is critical to better - higher quality, more integrated - development, which in turn strengthens local economies, provides more economic opportunity, and improves productivity.

In November we published a report by the University of Liverpool which analyses why some of our Western European neighbours seem to be much more successful in delivering this kind of development. Based on three in-depth case studies of Lille, Hamburg and Nijmegen, the findings point to the important role of planning as ‘market maker’, where proactive and positive planning has lead rather than merely reacted to development. The results clearly show that we can combine both the quantity and quality of development, indeed that the two are closely related.

This month, we published a similar study by the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL looking at how China has harnessed the potential of positive planning for growth and development. Strong national and local political support for planning, and local civic pride, has created a positive environment for planners to produce strategic urban development plans, initiate development, and reduce risk and uncertainty for developers and investors. The report also points to the important role of regulation in reducing the costs of poorly-coordinated development.

Both pieces of research were funded through the Institute's SPIRe scheme for RTPI accredited planning schools, to support policy and practice-relevant research.

We’ve also been conducting in-house research on the value of planning, for example in July we published a working paper on the economic benefits delivered by the regeneration of the Gorbals in Glasgow, which indicate how investments in high quality planning-led regeneration can improve economic opportunity and reduce poverty.

We’ll be following-up this work with more research on the value of planning in 2016.

Given that the RTPI’s research budget is necessarily limited, we’ve also been making the argument to the academic community about the importance of conducting more research in this area. For example, in the summer we organised a well-attended roundtable table at the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) research conference and presented a discussion paper on how more academic research could help planning practitioners to do their day-to-day jobs.

Promoting the best in planning research

It’s also important to recognise that there’s a lot of good research out there with critical lessons for practice. The challenge is how to get it to practitioners. Most planners don’t have enough time to go looking for the evidence that might help to improve their practice. Even if they did, much research is buried away in journals, and is often expressed in academic language meant primarily for academic audiences.

In September we announced the winners and highly commended entries from our RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, kindly supported by our sponsors the Idox Information Service and Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis group. From the future of London’s high streets and the impact of waterfront regeneration schemes, to how to promote active travel among school children and even how theatre can be used to engage the public in planning issues, all of the recognised projects from RTPI-accredited planning schools demonstrate how high quality planning research can have clear implications for policy and practice, and can contribute to making better places.

The Research Awards are just one of the ways in which that the Institute is trying to promote the importance of planning research to wider audiences. There’s also our academic journal Planning Theory and Practice which has published a typically excellent and diverse range of papers this year, including asking difficult questions about the relevance and use of some academic research, and how planners should engage with real-life political disputes over places.

Responding to the changing environment for planning

We’ve also tried to reflect the changing, and often difficult, environment for planning and planners.

In October we published a report commissioned by RTPI North West and conducted by Arup on the resourcing pressures facing local planning authorities. The report, Investing in Delivery, revealed a detailed picture of how cuts are putting many planning departments on the brink. But echoing our work on the value of planning, we also used the findings to make an argument for establishing a positive cycle of reinvestment in public sector planning in order to drive housing delivery and development. Our colleagues in RTPI Scotland published a similar study of the extent and impact of cuts north of the border.

We’ve also been examining the potential for positive planning in the shifting context of devolution and new institutional arrangements. In July, we published the first comprehensive analysis of the planning roles of Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) in England, conducted by Northumbria and Durham universities, which pointed to their increasing influence in strategic planning but also the need to formalise their status in the planning system and their relationship with local authorities.

There’s much more to come - including our research commissioned with RTPI nations and regions on the use of household projections in Wales, community-led planning in the West Midlands, the role of LEPs in the South West of England, planning and growth in the South East of England, planning and technology sectors, and the importance of place in reducing poverty and inequality.

In keeping with our argument for the value of positive planning, we’re launching a new initiative, the RTPI Essay Prize. This is the Institute's competition for original and insightful writing that helps to develop new thinking in planning and related issues; for this year the Prize focuses on how we can develop a stronger economic understanding of how planning can contribute to entrepreneurship and innovation.

In all this work you can see, I hope, that we want research to contribute to the positive case for better - and better resourced - planning. This will also be the main theme of our work into 2016 and beyond. But as members of the RTPI, and more broadly someone who’s interested in planning, do let us know what else you think we should be doing.

You can do this by contacting us at research@rtpi.org.uk or now by using the comment field on this blog below.

Have a great Christmas and a happy new year, and thanks for your support in 2015.

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI