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Let’s grasp this opportunity to diversify the planning world

By Emma El-Deen Luke, lead for environmental principles, DEFRA

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.

In recent months, the lack of diversity in many sectors has been brought into sharp focus by the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter campaign.  Planning is no different – The Planning Survey 2019 indicated that just 6% of planners are from minority ethnic backgrounds.  As more than 14% of the UK population is Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) (2011 Census), this is far from representative. 

I have experienced racism throughout my life, as a result of my dual North African-Caucasian heritage. It started with name calling and questions about where I’m from ‘originally’, or being told to ‘go back home to where I came from’. Like many people from minority ethnic backgrounds, my name was anglicised when I was young, to reduce the barriers that it might bring. Generally, the challenge I have experienced in my adult life has been more subtle, however the disadvantages associated with the intersection between race and gender have been apparent in my life.

My experience of racism motivated me to step up and engage in this conversation within Defra, through our diversity initiative, Project Race. In Defra, we’ve had a head start on some organisations when it comes to addressing structural racism, but we still have work to do. Project Race has been working for 18 months to address the issue, and will continue to do so until the end of 2020, when progress will be reviewed. In late 2018, only 7% of Defra staff were non-white.

The Project Race goal is simple: to create a more inclusive culture so that minority ethnicities can truly belong, not just ‘blend in’; and to increase diversity at middle and senior grades. We have representatives in every Defra team, and this is a critical to keeping racial equality high on the agenda.  

The impact of Project Race is already visible. Our work has delivered increased diversity at most grades, and Cabinet Office data shows that over 9% of Defra staff are now from minority ethnicities. But our challenge continues.  We have not yet reached our diversity targets, and better representation is particularly needed in senior roles, so Project Race has been extended until the end of 2020. 

The RTPI also has plans to improve ethnic diversity. It was great to see RTPI President Sue Manns launch the CHANGE Strategy for a more diverse planning workforce earlier this year. It is much needed. 

Just as Defra’s BAME colleagues are delivering Project Race, the RTPI CHANGE Strategy needs to be delivered in partnership with BAME planners. So I’m pleased to be part of a newly convened BAME roundtable, established by the RTPI to guide the delivery of this important strategy – and to ensure the experience of planners from diverse backgrounds can inform the effective delivery of this strategy. 

From the 18 months' experience we’ve had in Defra, my top three tips would be:

1) Take time to consider and identify the specific challenges to your organisation. What are the barriers to better ethnic representation in planning – who will be instrumental in overcoming these barriers? 

2) Create and enable visible BAME role models. They will not only inspire BAME graduates with the confidence to join the sector, they will also help overcome unconscious bias which exists about what our future planning leaders look like.

3) This issue is best tackled by a strong partnership of BAME planners and supportive and influential allies. The onus to overcome this issue should not rest solely with a small number of BAME planners. We need support from others with skills, influence and ideas, to speak out on our behalf, and ensure that in 20 years’ time, the planning world is a much more colourful and interesting place. 

Emma El-Deen Luke

Emma El-Deen Luke MRTPI works at Defra, where she is leading work to embed Environmental Principles in policy-making, through the Environment Bill.  Prior to joining Defra, Emma worked at LUC as a planning consultant, mainly supporting local authorities to deliver climate adaptation and other environmental improvements alongside growth. She also sits on the Board at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol.


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