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Learning and unlearning planning – what I’ve learnt from a year at the RTPI

By Oliver Charlton

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

Every single profession in the country is facing tumultuous times right now and while most of these challenges are simply down to the COVID-19 pandemic, planning in England is facing one of its most challenging periods ever thanks to incoming changes to our planning system. The plans to move towards a zonal system, with ever more deregulation, presents a crossroads for what planning truly is in this country. Does the government see planners as the caretakers for England’s town and country, or simply a tool to support the work of developers?

Since starting at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) last year, I have learned that planning is much more than putting buildings in the right places. When used effectively, it is a tool for managing local economies and developing vibrant places. This might be very obvious to a seasoned planner but even as a geography student I didn’t realise how much more knowledge I would need about the economics of planning to better understand land use decisions. I’ve learned that many people don’t understand the full potential of planning to tackle the nation’s “levelling up” agenda.

This year I have enjoyed contributing to projects such as England’s Economic Heartland’s Transport Strategy that seeks to improve regional growth, pushing for the integration of spatial planning in their transport planning framework. I’ve developed my knowledge of the economics of planning every step of the way, particularly working on the Scottish government’s business case for digital planning. I leave the RTPI with fears over the movement of English planning but I know the RTPI is doing important work to shape the discussions around the future of our planning system and will play a big part in shaping policy and practice in the next couple of years.

After a year here, I am carrying on my planning education at the University of Amsterdam to immerse myself in the Dutch planning system. Anyone who follows the many great sustainability accounts on Twitter will have marvelled at the way Dutch towns and cities are designed for pedestrians and cyclists, and the system is well-referenced in planning education in the UK too. However, beyond fantastic bike lanes, Dutch planning still has its fair share of problems too. Other members of the policy & research team have pointed out the extent to which we view other planning systems through rose-tinted spectacles and how much developing a perspective of different planning systems has helped them develop their understanding of planning. I should also add that the RTPI has already done some fantastic work comparing our system to those of our closest neighbours. I am excited to be getting to grips with the Dutch system and I am ready to adjust my perceptions and unlearn what I think about it beyond comparisons with the British systems I already know too well.

The country, like most others in Europe, also has a housing crisis, particularly in the Randstad. There are simply not enough homes in cities like Utrecht and Amsterdam, something that is often unfairly attributed to their careful planning system, a feeling English planners know too well. The Dutch system understands the need to plan for every metre of land in the country, thanks to the nation’s lack of it and the constant risks posed by living in of one of the lowest countries on earth. My reading list of many Barrie Needham books has given the best early insight of how the Dutch zonal system compares to the discretionary system in the UK. While the Dutch system is governed by zones, it is still very tightly controlled and regulated thanks to the expectations of Dutch people that their cities and towns look like a tourist would expect them to.

From my point of view, I currently understand the Dutch planning system as one full of regulation and devolved powers to allow cities and provinces to make their own land-use decisions and is the best example of a system that works at every level. I know that this is changing, the national government are slowly distilling the role of reducing regional inequalities in national planning and leaving it up to the local provinces, but the role of planning is not often undermined and no major party in the country supports largely weakening it. No planning system is perfect and it could of course improve but the solution in the Netherlands has never been to liberalise the system with the belief that this will solve all of their housing problems.

English planners will look on in disbelief at a system backed by the politicians and given such national prominence (Since 2010, two politicians have held the Dutch government’s Planning Minister role while 10 politicians have held the UK equivalent). I hope I can come back in a year and see if my perceptions from my early readings and presumptions of Dutch Planning are right but I know that what I have learned from the RTPI will help me get there. I’m hoping now to begin keeping up with the RTPI’s research as an outsider, be it in the UK or in Europe.

Oliver Charlton

Oliver Charlton graduated from King's College London with a degree in geography. After university he worked for The Campaign Company, an opinion research company, and Britain Thinks, an international insight and strategy company.  He then worked for one year with the RTPI as Policy and Networks Adviser. He is now studying urban planning at masters level at the University of Amsterdam.

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