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The future of the planning profession

Dr Matthew Wargent, Dr Emma Street & Professor Gavin Parker, University of Reading

Planning in the UK is evolving in a variety of ways. As RTPI research on The UK Planning Profession in 2019 has recently shown, this includes a growth in the proportion of chartered planners operating in the private sector, a widening range of specialist professionals informing planning activity, and a regulatory environment subject to continual reform and adjustment. 

In parallel to a recomposition of its staffing arrangements, planning is again being challenged by those who see it as hopelessly bureaucratic and wish to promote deregulation. These challenges inevitably point to further regulatory change, not all of which is attentive to previous attempts to ring the changes in planning. The defence of good planning once again requires attention.

Understanding Change

Such changes are set in a context where public trust in the planning system is almost non-existent.  A recent study by Grosvenor presented the bleak view that communities have of the planning system, the decisions it produces, and the motivations of its central actors. At a time of wider distrust in politics and experts, these are worrying times for a planning profession simultaneously weakened by a decade of austerity and facing new challenges such as the unprecedented popular interest in the environment through concerns about climate change and a zero-carbon future.

Against this backdrop, day-to-day planning practice is also undergoing change with (public) planners being asked to deploy numerous skills in, for example, negotiation and contract management that are not typically a staple of planning education at present. Furthermore, the pool of knowledges planners are asked to call upon is increasingly specialised and technical, and seemingly emerging at a faster rate than ever before (with development viability perhaps being the clearest recent example).

Research at the University of Reading has been exploring the confluence of these factors and the changing and unstable planning environment it is creating. The importance of this work is underscored by the RTPI’s recent research strategy and a large ESRC funded project that seeks to locate where the public interest is being considered in an era where even core traditional planning services are being outsourced.

A new ‘new vision’?

In seeking to reflect on and consider responses to these challenges, the University of Reading held a symposium in September to reflect on ‘The Future of the Planning Profession’. This brought together professionals operating across public and private sectors, as well as a range of organisations involved in the governance of planning. The event confirmed the view that the changes being witnessed on the frontline of planning require renewed attention across a variety of topics, including but not limited to:

  • planning education and post-qualification learning
  • the role of the public in the planning system 
  • the wider public perception of planning and its purpose
  • a recognition of the contribution made by ‘non-planners’
  • the fragmentation of the planning system
  • governance arrangements within the profession

These are not insignificant challenges. Indeed one of the event’s key messages was the need for spaces within planning to reflect on these issues. If we are to accept and make progress against the challenges presented to us by younger generations - think Greta Thunberg - then young planners, let alone the wider population, will need to be equipped with understandings, skills and resources to deal with both political and environmental challenges.

We hope this event will mark the start of a wider conversation, with contributions from all sides of the profession. The planning community has never faced such an exhilarating future - with profound opportunities for professionals to make a real difference. If planning is to rise to these challenges, then some hard questions must be asked to ensure that the governance of the profession itself is up to the challenge of meeting diversifying needs at a time of perhaps unprecedented political uncertainty.

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