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Amy Bristow: What does planning have to do with racial inequality?

Amy Bristow is a former Oak Foundation research intern in the I-SPHERE team at Heriot-Watt University. Amy is now a Planning Project Officer at the Improvement Service, Scotland’s go-to organisation for local government improvement.

Amy won the Early Career Researcher Award for her work on the role of planning in meeting the housing needs of BAME households in England. This award is a category of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2022

Research demonstrates that ethnic minority groups in the UK face stark and persistent socioeconomic inequality. 1.6 million households in England are estimated to need social housing, a problem which is compounded for ethnic minority communities as they experience significantly greater levels of housing need and homelessness, and are more likely to live in poor-quality or overcrowded accommodation.

Most planners would probably argue their role has a social function; the profession itself sprung from the need for public health measures following rapid industrialisation, and today it’s widely recognised that decisions affecting local environments can directly impact on people’s wellbeing. However, forty years of studies around ‘race and planning’ have shown that the planning system tends towards socially conservative outcomes, and that some planners might struggle to relate issues of racial equality to their practice. In this context, our recent research explored:

  1. Whether there have been any improvements in how planning handles issues of racial equality; and
  2. The current and potential contribution of the planning system to addressing racial inequalities in housing.

Research Findings

Our findings revealed that while the idea of an inclusive planning system has been long-discussed, this has never really been achieved:

Going back to the ‘60s there's been an understanding that planning has got to be inclusive… But if you asked [councils], "well what have you done about it?", I think they'd struggle to [say], and I think that's where we are now – (National Key Informant, Planner)

It was also felt that the make-up of planning authorities and the design of planning processes may be reproducing or even exacerbating inequalities, rather than addressing them:

[The power] is in the hands mainly of white, middle or upper-class people… I think that the lack of empathy with those who are in poverty who will tend to be from minority ethnic backgrounds…will mean that it doesn't cross your mind that you could work differently… or that your policies impact on those communities – (National Key Informant, Housing Association)

Indeed, case studies in Bradford, Harrow, Lambeth and Lewisham revealed that local authority planners lack the confidence, skills and resources to actively pursue social justice agendas through planning. The view persists that simply treating everyone equally will result in equal outcomes for all who access the system; this means that planners can be reluctant to prioritise certain groups over others:

The local plan is for all of society, and therefore…if it was an explicit aim [to meet housing needs of ethnic/faith groups], are we then being seen to not be giving that same weight in relation to other groups in society? I think that would potentially be a risk – (Local Stakeholder, Planning, Harrow)

Planners argued that to pursue more explicit policies aimed at tackling racial inequalities in housing, they would need sufficient supporting evidence. However, there was concern that Equality Impact Assessments are often ‘tickbox’ exercises with findings rarely acted upon. Moreover, local authorities aren’t currently required to include ethnic or faith groups in statutory assessments of housing needs.

Finally, public consultation opportunities were felt to reinforce existing unequal power dynamics by favouring those with the time, knowledge, and confidence to participate. More could be done to actively increase the diversity of respondents, though new online consultations deployed during the pandemic have led to some improvements.

What Can Planners Do Now?

Crucially, our research showed that the planning system has untapped potential in tackling racial inequalities. To reach this potential, planners need to be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to actively promote equalities agendas where this would ensure equal outcomes for all groups.

One way to build this confidence will be to give planners access to a robust evidence base. The report therefore recommends that national planning policy should require all local authorities to include the needs of ethnic and/or faith groups in housing needs assessments, and that authorities should receive resource from central government to maintain up-to-date records in between censuses.

Moreover, qualified planners and students alike should have access to educational materials on ‘race and the planning system’, developed in conjunction with external stakeholders in housing, race equalities, and academia.

Critically, the planning profession itself needs to become more diverse in order to reflect a greater range of perspectives at all levels, including in leadership roles. The RTPI’s Change Action Plan provides a much-needed starting point, and there is now an opportunity to explore how upcoming initiatives to alleviate staffing issues by growing the numbers entering the profession could be proactive in attracting a diverse range of applicants.

In summary, planning remains a critical policy area for addressing racial inequalities, be that in housing or otherwise. Planning has significant potential to positively impact communities, but meaningful action is urgently needed to ensure a more equitable future.

The full list of recommendations from the report can be viewed here.

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