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Teaching future planners

29 February 2012

The seventh in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.

Ruth Richards MRTPI - Acting Head of Urban, Environment & Leisure Studies Department, London SouthBank University 


I have a great fondness for, and association with, London SouthBank so perhaps I have to declare an interest! However.

I am one of a number of alumni including Past President Brian Raggett, who benefitted greatly from being taught there initially as Brixton School of Building, then SouthBank Polytechnic and finally London SouthBank University although Brian isnt old enough to have gone to BSB! As well as currently being an External Examiner, I have been a member of their RTPI Partnership Board. As I wanted next to interview an academic it was an obvious choice to ask Ruth Richards Acting Head of Department as one of my can do MRTPIs and who, as you will see, because of her track record in working with lively communities and interest groups, is also well placed to demonstrate that accredited planning schools are immediately responding to the current Government agenda in preparing graduates for the new world of planning.

How did it all start Ruth?

I achieved a degree in Maths and Economics at Surrey University hoping for a job as a Market Analyst in the city but the economy was in recession before the big bang and the city was male dominated as in some ways was the planning profession although not now! As you had to be in work to get a job (!), I took one at London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1983 as a Temporary Admin Assistant working for Reg Ward. I had a choice between Architecture and Planning and chose Planning and my responsibilities extended quickly to Property then for an Area multi disciplinary team for The Royal Docks. I was hooked! It was a very exciting place to work. From temporary photo copier and filer I moved into permanent positions. The LDDC then sponsored me on a Post Grad degree in Urban Policy Studies at LSBU it would now be called Urban Regeneration. On the way, I helped produce the STOL report for the London City Airport (I did the first one in 1969 for The Isle of Dogs working for the GLC as a planning trainee!) but learnt my communication skills at the front desk of the office having to deal with a wide range of questions and personalities some of them very challenging. Anyone who came through the door saw Ruth first. Many were residents, some were groups of visiting professionals wanting a tour and I had to pick up planning quickly.

I worked with local schools and became an internal 'community activist' for example helping pensioners get bus passes to allow them to pick up their pensions after all the Docklands Post offices closed down. I gained a reputation of being someone who would help. I tried to get a unit set up to deal with the local community but hit a brick wall. As a result, I ended up working for Planning Aid London once the TCPA and RTPI had come together in support and then became Director. It helped having managed the property department budget so I had financial skills. I secured Chartered Membership through taking a 4 year Distance Learning Course run through the RTPI, LSBU and Bristol Polytechnic.

Working for Planning Aid London for 9 years was very exciting. You never knew what would come through the door. I became involved in supporting the community in resisting a major proposal by a developer to build on a cemetery in Newham. I acted for the residents in 3 public enquiries and then provided advice to a Parliamentary Select Committee regarding a Private Bill aimed at sponsoring the development becoming a Silks Aid to Judge Dobrie, QC Christopher Lockhart-Murray and Natalie Leven as Junior Barrister quite an experience albeit unpaid as were the barristers and part of their approach to put something back into the community. We were successful in petitioning the Bill and although some development was permitted a Trust was set up to manage the majority.

So how did you end up at LSBU having studied there?

Charles Fraser, then Head of the Planning School, was a 'mentor' who asked me firstly to provide some external lectures initially on community participation then other areas of practice then invited me to become a lecturer and Ive now been here for 16 years, now as acting Head of Department

How have planning courses evolved?

We have seen a growth in non accredited courses such as for Regeneration and Urban Planning and Design although the new approach to APC and Associate Membership might capture graduates from these in the future. The non accredited specialist courses are almost all based on course work not exams so are very popular with students. However our accredited courses, especially the new 1 year Masters from 2003, have a high design content including in the selected specialism and also now have new environmental, sustainability and climate change modules. There is also a strong Planning Law element probably our most popular series of lectures and a strong policy basis in all that we teach. This particular change in 2003 put planning on the same basis as other professional bodies. My Department which also includes tourism, leisure and housing, maximises the benefits of cross disciplinary understanding for planning purposes.

What distinguishes the LSBU Planning School Ruth? I noticed in a recent report on LSBU in the Evening Standard that the University generally focuses on vocational education?

Each Planning School has a different emphasis; for Reading it's Valuation and Development Finance, for Sheffield it's Research; for LSBU it's Design, Law and of course links with planning practice. We have very strong links with practice. We try to ensure that whether part time or fulltime the links between what is taught and practice are very clear, applying learning to the day job. In fact we promote links between those on part time courses in work we are one of only a few schools that offers a part time undergraduate course - and the full timers a number of whom have never been in work. Although the supply of part timers from local authorities has declined in the current economic climate we still maintain very strong links with employers and have recently benefitted from TFL student sponsorship. This has worked well for our latest full time course graduates as securing work placements and links with part time students in work has meant that all of our graduates from the last 2 years are employed. We manage the links with practice in a number of ways. As well as personal networks mainly from my own practice experience, buddying delivering work placements, the large number of annual consultant prizes and the YPs and Alumni networks are fully supported. With nearly 40 Practitioners providing external lectures to some 200 students each year, we try hard to prepare our students for work. We hold one to one meetings between employers, myself and course leaders to keep our teaching up-to-date. However all Planning Schools are concerned about the impact of cuts on both public and private sector jobs which together with the removal of CLG bursaries has affected the market for new students. Many of the staff are mentors for RTPI Licentiates so we keep in touch with the relevance of what we teach to those becoming professionals.

Is there a wide range of career destinations for your graduates and can finding a sponsor or mentor be a problem?

There is a very wide range of careers our graduates capture and yes finding support can be an issue. For example there is only one planner in Newham PCT and we provide mentoring support where appropriate. Recent career destinations include the usual local authority and consultancy positions but also the NHF, DCLG, Planning Aid, the Environment Agency, DEFRA and Housing Associations. The skills we teach are very transferable and we offer individual support once students have graduated. Although the current market place is poor it will improve and thats what we tell candidates. We also have close links with the London and SE RTPI Regions who hold some events here.

How does the RTPI Planning School accreditation process work for you?

The Partnership Board is much more meaningful than the previous 5 year review, much more continuity. We have a regular dialogue and try to look at one big issue each year as well as the usual scrutiny of existing and new accredited courses. I am also a member of another Partnership Board.

And how are you approaching the new legislative and regulatory landscape Ruth?

The planning system is changing all the time and the Localism Act is just one of a series of changes that need to be incorporated.  However different philosophies and drivers for action are always embedded into the courses the students need to be able to think through what this might mean for the future as well as recognizing the current changes.  Incorporating this material is therefore easily accommodated without substantial revision of the course. With my particular background of working with communities, this has featured in our teaching for some time.

With the loss of RSSs again, such changes are fed through at every level of the course. For 1st years this might be in the discussions of 'who does what', whereas for later years it would feature heavily in strategic planning modules. Simply because the current government has chosen to abandon regional planning, this does not mean that students will no longer need those skills. In other countries (including those within the UK), and of course within London, strategic planning remains a key function and as a result newly qualified planners will need to understand the role and activities of strategic planning and will need the skills to be able to engage in this level of planning. The new responsibility for 'strategic co-operation' promoted by the RTPI means that the principles of strategic planning will continue to feature strongly in what we teach." From my visits as External Examiner I have noticed a wide variety of cultural backgrounds for students and also a high proportion of 'mature students'.

Is this a characteristic of your intake?

LSBU has traditionally seen many more mature students on our planning courses than many other universities. However a trend over the past few has seen our undergraduate students becoming younger (more 18 year olds) although mature students are still represented, particularly from those who have a more limited academic background, but might have been working in the field for some time.  We have also seen more women coming into the profession, particularly through our postgraduate programmes. 

LSBU prides itself in its mission to provide a more inclusive approach to higher education.  It is firmly embedded in the community and as a result our students generally reflect the ethnicity and diversity of London. For planning this means a much more diverse student population, with students from a very wide range of backgrounds, which adds to the experiences that all students gain.

And finally, what do you look for in a planning lecturer?

Universities are an odd place for planners to work but we pride ourselves on bridging the gap between academia and practice. We are lucky in having a low turnover of staff and have retained very good lecturers almost all of whom continue to have or have had practice experience. What I look for I suppose you would look for in any planner someone who relates well and enthuses people, in our case students, colleagues and employers. Now, you have to be good at administration as well as lecturing and we are very fortunate here in having a complementary mix of skills and personalities. Teaching and increasingly research are core skills for a successful planning school and we are blessed with both.

My experience as an External Examiner is that the staff responds positively to suggestions for improvement and although she will chastise me for mentioning it, my daughter also completed the 1 year post grad course at LSBU and has nothing but praise for Ruth and the staff.

I believe that the teaching of our future professionals is in very good hands at LSBU!

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, February 2012