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Dangers and opportunities: Presidential team report

by RTPI President Sue Manns FRTPI

29 May 2020

The digital Presidency has continued through May and will remain in place until 31 December 2020. As John F Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger, the other represents opportunity” and what an opportunity the digital Presidency has turned out to be.

As you will see from our report for May, our reach has in many ways stretched beyond that of a ‘physical’ presidency. It has been a fascinating and rewarding learning curve. We are currently looking at how we can extend that reach further, and have plans to ‘drop in’ on digital events across the UK nations, Ireland and internationally. We very much hope that we will get to meet many members in this new virtual world over the coming months.

So, what have we been doing in May 2020? We have set out below a report of our activities which we hope you will find interesting and enjoyable to read.

Community-led housing in London

My President’s London ‘visit’ took place over Friday 1 May and Monday 4 May and was an amazing and very special experience.

Events included a webinar focused on community-led housing in London – a passion of mine. The speakers were superb (Councillor Paul Bell, Hannah Gretton, Levent Kerimol and Ted Stevens) and through their presentations and the case studies (Braysted and Church Grove, Lewisham) captured the essence, excitement and challenges associated with delivering community-led housing. The discussion that followed was chaired by Lu Mirza and picked up on some of the key themes which linked all the presentations:

  • People can do anything and can achieve so much by working together
  • The importance of trust (between all parties and stakeholders)
  • Time, patience and the need to learn how to work through the planning system
  • The role of professionals in supporting community groups through the sharing of knowledge and experience

I then joined a webinar chaired by Tom Venables, Chair of the London Region and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees. This event was the part of the London Ideas Exchange programme. The question posed to the four speakers, Riette Oosthuizen, Sarah Cary, Coby Tomlins and Wei Yang ( RTPI Vice President), was ‘Are we building beautiful in London?’ There were 161 ‘attendees’, who heard about the importance of ambition, the need for beauty to extend beyond the physical, the role of leadership, the depth and breadth of engagement and the need for better resourcing if we are to achieve our aims. I was delighted to join the speakers on the panel for a Q&A, with Tom running a live poll alongside the questions – a dynamic and stimulating event.

The day ended with a ‘Meet the President’ Q&A/discussion social evening for Young Planners. Run as a ‘drop in’ event, we covered topics ranging from the impacts of COVID-19 on young people, what we as a society have learned through our experiences of living through ‘lockdown’ and climate change, through to the importance of planning for the future of society. It was also clear to me just how much the London Young Planners were supporting each other through these difficult times. A great credit to themselves and to the Young Planners Network.

Equality and diversity

The second ‘day’ of the visit started with a virtual ‘skills and diversity round table’. The session was chaired by Katie Lidington and I was privileged to deliver a keynote speech setting out the importance of equality, diversity and inclusivity in planning and how the RTPI Action Plan – known as CHANGE – aims to tackle this. The round table discussion that followed identified some short-term actions to start to improve the balance across the profession and which could be delivered within London to help move forward on in the context of COVID-19.

The final session was a workshop which focused on Professional Ethics and Equitable and Sustainable Development. Led by Stephen Hill, topics covered included intergenerational equity, differential impacts, uncertainty, planning for the ‘have-nots’, the noble lie, ethical business models, everyday challenges and what is ‘the wrong thing’. It was a thought-provoking session and one that raised some challenging questions with regard to our approach to spatial justice and the true meaning of sustainable development, with a case study from California demonstrating these issues in practice. The perfect end to the perfect visit.

Other webinars and speaking events have followed during the month. On 7 May, I ‘attended’ an event organised by Built Environment Networking at which I outlined the work that the RTPI was doing in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the findings of our member survey, and our asks of government to help keep the planning system functioning effectively. On 27 May, I joined a panel for a Q&A event organised by McDonald & Co that focused on the role of the planning system in the post Covid-19 recovery. As you might expect, I took the opportunity to remind people that the planning system that we have today emerged from the poor public health and housing conditions of the 19th century, and emphasised the importance of investing not only in health and social care, but also in planning as we ‘plan’ for the future.

I also joined the judging panel to assess applications from students for the RTPI Bursary scheme for 2020–2021. There were 19 submissions and all were absolutely excellent. It was a tough challenge to select the four recipients of the awards. As a result of this process one thing is very clear to me and that is that the future of planning is in safe hands if these submissions are anything to go by.

High Streets Task Force

Wei and I also spent many hours reading through applications from members who had responded to the call for experts to join the High Street Task Force panel. Again the quality and experience of the submissions was outstanding.

Two of our accredited planning schools (Birmingham University and Newcastle University) took up the offer for a ‘Meet the President’ session. Having delivered a short presentation I then took questions – all of which were insightful, challenging and topical. It is clear that how we as a profession respond to the COVID 19 crisis is at the centre of minds, along with the recognition that not only do we have a role in this, but a responsibility to lead.

In addition to joining me in looking at the applications for the High Street Task Force Experts Panel, Wei also attended a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings, including and inquiry chaired by Caroline Lucas MP on the Climate Diplomacy and the Uncertain Road to COP26. The inquiry is undertaking a series of evidence sessions to explore the UK's preparations for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Wei also attended parliamentary roundtable discussion on addressing emissions from UK consumption, and discussion on circular economy principles.

Enforcement handbook

As Immediate Past President, Ian has similarly been busy and on 18 May attended the webinar for the ‘virtual’ launch of the NAPE Enforcement Handbook. It was his first chance to wear a tie and the medal since February!

As Board Champion for climate change, he has also been involved in the process of appointing consultants to help the RTPI in producing our Climate Action Plan.

On 26 May, Ian spoke in an online training event for pupils and newly qualified barristers organised by the Planning and Environmental Bar Association, talking about the role of the expert witness in inquiries, tribunals and other hearings. He took the chance to promote the RTPI’s practice guidance document on the subject. 

On 27 May, in his role as RTPI representative on the Commonwealth Association of Planners (its UK Vice President), Ian spoke at a webinar attended by over 350 people worldwide in the Urban Thinkers Campus series, organised by the World Urban Campaign, part of UN Habitat. The topic was ‘Planning and design for pandemic urban resilience’. 

If you have reached this far in the report, then we hoped that you have enjoyed what you have read. In addition to these monthly reports, as a team we will also try to keep everyone up to date through Linked In, so if you have not already connected with us, please do so.

Most importantly, stay safe and stay healthy.