This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

Planning research for policy and practice: The importance of supporting planning’s theoretical basis

10 December 2013

Peter Geraghty MRTPI

The benefit of being President of the RTPI and travelling the length and breadth of the country is that you get to see the range of planning practice and to meet students and practitioners from all over the country. In preparing for my presidential year I took some time to look again at my training and grounding in planning. Looking through textbooks, research notes and briefing material what struck me is how easy it is for a practitioner to become isolated from current planning research and thinking. I mean, in particular, the theoretical basis of planning[1] rather than purely continuing professional development (CPD). This, to my mind, has a very significant implication for planners practising in the UK and especially England.

The growing tendency for tweaking and amending the legislative framework underpinning planning and the concentration on procedures as a means of achieving growth has eroded the value of planning as a professional activity.

I think that the perception being given in the general media and political circles of planning as a purely bureaucratic procedure based activity on one level reinforces this isolation and on another level fuels a negative perception. This perception, particularly in England, of planning practice as an activity that is undertaken substantially by a local authority as a mechanistic process belies and undervalues the power of planning as a sphere of professional activity. As far back as 1981, McConnell[2] has argued that the problem with planning theory and planning practice is that planners seldom have to ask themselves what the reason is for what they are doing. The more experienced a planner becomes the more he or she relies on a deepening innate knowledge. The growing tendency for tweaking and amending the legislative framework underpinning planning and the concentration on procedures as a means of achieving growth has eroded the value of planning as a professional activity. This is reinforced by the point which, Tewdwr-Jones[3] has argued that planners have been forced to dispense with the theoretical justification for recommendations and simply provide the facts of each case.

I think it is time that the link between planning practice and theory is strengthened to support the profession and those who undertake it. That is why the work of researchers in universities under the Small Project Impact Research Scheme (SPIRe)[4] project is so useful. It provides the basis for practical based research that can support and influence future practice. I will return to the value of SPIRe shortly.

In times of recession we need more and better planning not less. Where resources are so stretched and the outcomes so critical we need to ensure that decisions are made as optimally as possible and result in development that is truly sustainable. The National Planning Policy Framework (2012) requires that development must be sustainable. In order to ensure that all three aspects of sustainability are properly assessed and given appropriate weight requires planning expertise. Elkin et. al., have pointed out in their 1991 study that a combination of public support with strong planning is the way to achieve sustainable urban development [5].

The support that planning theory and research can provide for practice not only in terms of providing an academic and intellectual basis for the profession but also enabling it to challenge the negative perceptions that have increasingly become attached to the planning profession will assist in engendering public support.

Krizek et. al., have argued that much of planning practice is reflective relying on skills such as mediation, negotiation and listening.[6] They believe that there is a role for evidence-based practice which in their view can enrich the field of planning by linking research to practice.

One of the strengths of planning indeed, part of its raison d’être, is to consider the broader picture, to look at the longer term and understand what the implications are for the present. Localism, and it seems there are a number of versions of Localism, some of which are diametrically opposed, result in a narrow focus leading to parochialism and sub-optimal decision-making.

As part of the RTPI’s Policy Futures[7] work during our Centenary Year in 2014, the Institute will be looking to the future of the planning profession and its role in responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century. This evidence based work will also consider how these challenges need to inform the evolution of the profession itself. This is a good example of research work with the potential to influence planning practice.

I recently visited the University of Salford campus based at MediaCItyUK. I was struck by the powerful synergy between academic research being undertaken in a range of subjects at graduate and postgraduate level and the technology, creative and media business activity being carried on at the remainder of the site. Both areas benefitted from the flow of energy and ideas and the opportunity to apply them in actual business contexts. I would like to see planning practice benefitting in a similar way. For example, the Institute has established a new fund to support small-scale research projects in order to promote research into planning. The SPIRe Scheme is particularly intended to encourage high quality research projects that have the potential to impact on policy and practice, and to encourage closer collaboration between the RTPI and Planning Schools. It is hoped that the outputs from SPIRe will be of particular interest to policymakers and practitioners.

It seems that a week does not pass without a change or modification in the planning system. This makes practising the science and art of planning much more difficult than it need be and undermines it in the eyes of the public. I am firmly of the belief that a stronger link between planning practice and research can only strengthen both areas. It also has the benefit of reinforcing the perception that planning is a sphere of professional activity undertaken by experienced and knowledgeable professionals rather than the administration of a bureaucratic process subject to constant change.

About Peter Geraghty MRTPI

Peter Geraghty is President of the RTPI. He is Southend on Sea Borough Council's Head of Planning and Transport with experience of working across all sectors – public, private and voluntary. Peter was previously Chief Planning Officer, Brentwood Borough Council and Head of Planning and Conservation, Broadland District Council, volunteer and Director for Planning Aid London and Chair of the RTPI Eastern Region Management Board in 2011.


[1] A. Ferreira, O. Sykes & P. Batey, ‘Planning Theory or Planning Theories? The Hydra Model and its Implications for Planning Education’,Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 4(2), (2009) pp. 29-54; J. Hillier and P. Healey (eds.),Critical Essays in Planning Theory, Contemporary Movements in Planning Theory, vol. 3, (Aldershot, 2008); and A. Faludi, A Reader in Planning Theory, (Oxford, 1973).

[2] S. McConnell, Theories for Planning: An Introduction, (London, 1981), p. 74.

[3] M. Tewdwr-Jones, 'Development control and the legitimacy of planning decisions', Town Planning Review, (1995), 66(2), p. 173.

[5] T. Elkin, D. McLaren and M. Hillman, Reviving the City: Towards Urban Sustainable Development, (London, 1991), p. 254.

[6] K. Krizek, A. Forysth, C.S. Slotterback, ‘Is there a role for evidence-based practice in urban planning policy’, Planning Theory and Practice, (2009), 10(4), p. 459.