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Bullying and ‘planner bashing’ rhetoric must stop

by RTPI President Sue Manns FRTPI

"I am aware that many members of our profession, and indeed the communities with whom we are engaging, have been on the receiving end of bullying behaviour, intimidation, threats and damage to their property from those opposed to development.

“And I have experienced first-hand the impact that this has on the mental health and wellbeing of colleagues and also members of the public who take a different view to the aggressors.

“This is a sad reflection of the state of our society. It is not acceptable and it has to stop.”

Extract from RTPI President’s Inauguration Speech, January 2020

It is not okay to insult or abuse a profession or professionals – yet unfortunately I’m being contacted by RTPI members who tell me this seems to be what is happening on a daily basis to many planners.

How often do we read comments on social media or in the mainstream press that undermines or devalue the work that we do and how does that leave us feeling? At this point I need to make one thing very clear: the abuse, slander and words regularly hurled at planners and the planning system that we work within are not acceptable. They are intended to intimidate and belittle a person or profession. This ‘planner bashing’ rhetoric has to stop. 

Bullying is not part of the job

Conflict is a part of life – we all know that. So is dealing with difficult people or with others who have different expectations, needs, or wants to our own. But verbal abuse, incivility, and bullying should never be considered simply part of the job.

As a profession, we should not allow such a culture to continue unchallenged.  When such behaviour isn’t addressed, it becomes easier for people to continue in this way, it becomes the ‘norm’. These behaviours are carried out in different ways. Sometimes they can be face to face, for example at a public consultation event, but more often they occur in writing, by telephone, text messaging, email and on social media.

Everyone has a right to dignity and respect. Calling out unacceptable behaviour is often difficult to do and, as professionals we endeavour to respond with a calm reasoning. But in doing so are we tacitly allowing the flames to grow?

Abuse from the public

Where is the evidence for this, many will ask? The sad fact is that almost every planner I have asked has been able to recount a time when they have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse from members of the public. Worse still, I have seen evidence of criminal damage to the property of planners at consultation events, anonymous threats and a growing use of professional security teams. I have seen how unacceptable behaviour, aggression and the undermining of planning professionals can affect both performance and morale; 40% of all sickness absence relates to stress. At a time when the planning system is suffering from a lack of resources, this simply does not make sense.

The planning system is not perfect. Change is always difficult, but in considering change we should all strive to take emotion out of the debate. Experiences of planning, planners and the system within which we work will always be different. Some view planning as a way of protecting spaces and places that they value, others see that same protection as limiting their ability to deliver much needed development. We will never please everyone. However, the debate about how we plan and who we are planning for must take place in a considered and open way. Different views must be allowed to be aired, and those sharing views must be treated with respect.

Whether the debate is about the White Paper, a Local Plan allocation or an individual development, different voices must be heard. Ensuring that we listen to and welcome views from across society is key. Allowing only those voices that shout loudest to be heard is not the way forward. Those who seek to bully and harass others into sharing their opinions must be encouraged to reflect on their behaviour, to consider the issue at hand from the perspectives of others and moderate their approach.

Changing the conversation

So we need to change the conversation around planning and planners. We need to look at how we communicate and share information with others across the profession, with stakeholders, communities and beyond. We need to listen to diverse voices and ensure that these are in turn shared more widely and we need to challenge those that use inappropriate and frankly unacceptable ways of dominating the debate with their own interests in sight.

That is why, within the Value of Membership pillar of the 2020-2030 Corporate Strategy, we make a commitment to focus on the value of membership and professionalism, so that planners are not only proud of what they do, but are proud to be a Chartered member of the RTPI. We recognise the value of supporting member engagement, and the strategy makes a commitment to launch a members’ welfare resource to support our members who are at the frontline of engagement and interface with the public and stakeholders. While it is early days in the life of the strategy, and work has not yet started on what that resource should look like, the strategy is clear that the RTPI, as the professional home for all planners, will actively support health and wellbeing initiatives for members’ benefit.

Kindness, caring and respect

During the COVID 19 lockdown period earlier this year communities came together. People started to care about the places where they lived, to identify what works and what doesn’t, about equity, quality of life, health and all those things that inspired us to become planners. Kindness to others, caring and respect was evident across the media.

Let’s grasp the opportunity to shape the conversation about the role of planning and planners in shaping the future. The RTPI’s Plan The World We Need campaign provides a sound basis for informed and positive discussion. We may not always agree on the detail, but there are many things that we can and should agree on. Together we are stronger.