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How can we ensure planning research has an impact?

19 April 2015

Michael Harris

Peter Geraghty, RTPI President in 2013, wrote on this blog during his year as President about the importance of research and theory to planning practice. Speaking as a practitioner (Peter is Southend on Sea Borough Council's Head of Planning and Transport), he noted how easy it is for practitioners to become isolated from current planning research and thinking. This matters because the context of planning, particularly in England – the constant tweaking of regulations, the emphasis on ‘efficiency’ over effectiveness and outcomes, and the criticisms of planners as ‘enemies of enterprise’ – has served to erode the value of planning as a professional activity.

[R]esearch and theory can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning.

Defending and enhancing the profession so that planning can deliver the greatest possible value for society requires research and evidence. Research is inherent to what it means to be a professional – to take informed, evidence-based decisions. Moreover, research and theory can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning. It can also help us better to defend planning from those who would seek to erode it further.

So how can we ensure that planning research has a greater impact on planning practice (and beyond)?

Here’s what we’ve done so far. We’ve launched our Small Project Impact Research Scheme (SPIRe) to commission practice- and policy-focused research from RTPI accredited planning schools. We’ve drawn on a wide range of planning research for our Planning Horizons series of papers, to suggest how planning will be critical if we are to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century. We’ve established an on-going programme of research on the value of planning, to counter the arguments of the most vocal critics of planning and to demonstrate the various economic roles that planners and planning play. We’ve published a series of research briefings, to summarise key research on issues for practitioner and policy audiences. At the same time, we’ve published four policy papers on issues that are high on the policy agenda, such as housing and economic growth. We’re working with the RTPI’s regions to commission rigorous research on practical issues of particular regional interest, including resourcing in local planning departments, the role of Local Economic Partnerships, and support for community-led planning. And we publish our own academic journal, Planning Theory and Practice, which as its name suggests seeks to engage with policy and practice issues from a critical perspective.

Academic readers however will have a specific understanding of the word ‘impact’. Last year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in the UK included an evaluation of how academic research has informed and influenced policy and practice. The bulk of the exercise focused on the intellectual quality of the research published (typically) in academic journals. Nearly 200,000 pieces of research from more than 50,000 academics at more than 150 universities were evaluated by panels of fellow academics (and some practitioner organisations, including the RTPI), to determine the allocation of research funding for the next six years.

But in addition, 7,000 case studies – representing 20 per cent of the scores awarded to universities – were judged for the ‘reach and significance’ of the impact of research on the economy, society and culture. This was the ‘impact’ aspect of the REF, and it’s likely to grow in significance in the future, in part because government and research funders want to ensure that research represents a good public investment.

One of the somewhat frustrating aspects of participating in the REF exercise is that the detailed deliberations of the panels remain confidential. Individual academics aren’t informed about how their work was rated; rather, universities are only told the results for each subject area (or ‘units of assessment’ in REF jargon). But having a read of a lot of the best planning research published over the last few years, we want to do more to promote the research work that many more practitioners and policymaker should know about – which brings us to the recently re-launched RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

Research Awards logoThe Research Awards are designed to recognise the best in planning research. Formerly called the Education and Lifelong Learning Awards, they will recognise and promote high quality research from RTPI accredited planning schools, whether from the UK, the Republic of Ireland or internationally. The Awards comprise four categories: the Academic Award; Early Career Researcher Award; Student Award; and Wider Engagement Award.

The last one is a particularly interesting category. As in the REF, we should be encouraging and supporting researchers to find ways of ensuring that the wider world knows about their work. But it can equally be said that whether their work has ‘impact’ isn’t necessarily something that researchers can control (if, for example, some policymakers have already made up their minds about the value of planning, it might be difficult for any evidence, however rigorous, to shift this). At the same time, we certainly want to recognise the ways in which researchers are trying to reach beyond the academy, in order to inform and influence policy and professional practice, and improve the public’s understanding of planning. And we’re looking forward to seeing what work planning schools themselves put forward as the research they are most proud of.

As Peter Geraghty argued in his blog, planning theory and research can help practice not only in terms of providing an academic and intellectual basis for the profession, but also by enabling it to challenge the negative perceptions that have increasingly become attached to the planning profession. Put simply, research can help us to be a more evidence-based profession, but also a more purposeful one. We hope that the Research Awards are just one of the ways in which the Institute can promote both of these goals. We may not be able to ensure that planning research always has the impact we might like, but we’d welcome suggestions about what else we should be doing to promote it. Contact us at research@rtpi.org.uk

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence will be presented at the annual UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference, this year to be held at London South Bank University in September. You can read more about the Awards here.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.