This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

Speech: Phil Williams becomes RTPI President

21 January 2016

Phil WDistinguished guests, fellow GA Members and hard working officers of the Institute, I stand here before you today as President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2016 (that sounds good – I’ll say it again – President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2016!). It is indeed an honour and privilege to represent the Institute, something I never imagined would be bestowed upon me. But now that it is, I intend to take every opportunity to promote the Institute, the planning profession and planners who work so tirelessly within it.

Making a difference

Having worked in the planning profession for over 35 years, and all that time within Local Government, I am a firm believer in how planning makes a difference. The interface between planners in Local Government, and the private and voluntary sectors is critical to the delivery of solutions to key challenges that face society, and communities within society, at every level. How can integrated transport solutions, resolution of the housing crisis, re-engaging our urban and rural communities, or on a more global scale, climate change or rapid urbanisation of societies across the globe – how can these challenges be faced without the expertise and enthusiasm of planners.

We need more homes

The continuing debate regarding the housing crisis in this country is evidence of where our expertise needs to be utilised. The crisis has prompted experts, such as Lord Kerslake, speaking at the RTPI Nathaniel Litchfield Lecture, to say that “it is one of the biggest public policy failures of the last 40 years”. Others have commented that the potential impact of the Housing and Planning Bill in London (and elsewhere) will “mark the end of general needs social housing...There will be no more”. Media comments have included the following:  - “watching the Housing & Planning Bill being debated revealed how little connection the Commons have with the lives of ordinary people”. Not my words, but at very least a perception of the disconnect between politicians, the people they represent, and the planning function.

Influencing change

We have been in existence as an Institute for over 100 years, and know how to respond to the demands of societal change. Planners think differently to all other professions, more holistically, more laterally and always balancing the options of choice in a measured and objective way. It’s what we do best, and what others need to rely on. The celebration of our centenary included the publication of a number of Planning Horizon papers that profiled key challenges for the future. We highlighted the societal changing influences of Abercrombie, Geddes and Howard, who changed the way in which society and communities were formed. Refocusing on what planners do and how they can influence change in the 21st century is paramount.

As Joni Mitchell once said ‘Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?’. Planning should go nowhere in my view, other than to a more central and influencing position in delivering improvements to society, particularly in where people live and work, where and how they travel, and in the delivery of better and more sustainable communities.

Building our membership

2016 is the year when we will be doing everything we can to build our membership. These are challenging times. The greater our numbers however, the stronger we are. So I fully intend to play my part in helping to grow our members as I visit the Nations and Regions and speak to employers. We all have a part to play in demonstrating the value of RTPI membership, especially chartered membership. Do you work with or know someone who is working in planning but is currently not a member of the Institute? Maybe they were in the past but have allowed their membership to lapse? Perhaps they have never been a member? Each and every one of us can make a real different in boosting membership.

People, politicians and planners

Triangle2My theme for 2016 is placing planning and planners at the centre of the debate. To try to simplify the message: planning has a relationship with people in the communities that we serve, and politicians who are democratically elected by those communities. We have a relationship with people and politicians, and they have a relationship between themselves. We are all striving for a better society, a better sense of place within the community.

If you take planning and planners out of that triangular relationship, the prospect of delivering balanced communities where people want to live, work and spend their leisure time in, and that politicians want to strive for – if you take us out of that equation, the triangle collapse. 

I believe it is imperative we get a balance between the three sides of that triangle. Perhaps getting the balance is the most difficult task of all. It is a challenge that is happening everywhere. Not just in England. But in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Each challenge may be different. But each part of the triangle is impacted.

Angle of attack

What I hope to do in 2016 is improve our relationship with politicians at national, regional and local levels, and listen to communities and better engage with people within them. In 12 days time we will be in front of Brandon Lewis. There will be a lot to talk about! This month’s Planner magazine – have you seen it? Its very good. I’m on the cover – but seriously it is headed ‘Angle of Attack.’  I liked that. Whether it be that or a Point of Persuasion remains to be seen, but active engagement is necessary. I will use everything we have at our disposal to achieve this. Our fantastic policy and research work. Our evidence based approach to providing positive planning solutions that will work. The examples we have of great planning and yes, great planners and great planning teams.

On the road

I will use my visits to Nations and Regions, as Janet has, to listen to, and learn from, Nations and Regions about the positive influences planning and planners are making to their communities, and I intend to visit them all within my Presidential year.  Seeing examples of good practice on the ground and sharing these processes is the most important learning tool.

If you take planning and planners out of that triangular relationship, the prospect of delivering balanced communities where people want to live, work and spend their leisure time in, and that politicians want to strive for – if you take us out of that equation, the triangle collapse. 

The value of planning

You will see from my career that I have a great interest in cross national planning with roles in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I have recently taken up the post of Director of Planning and Place in Belfast. Many of you will know that planning powers have been devolved back into 11 local planning authorities, of which Belfast City Council is the largest. I detect an energy and enthusiasm by people, politicians and senior officers to use planning powers in a positive and proactive way. It’s almost a case of not appreciating the value of planning until it’s taken away. The rest of the UK and beyond would do well to ask what would happen if planning and planners were not central to the debate. As Joni Mitchell once said ‘Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?’. Planning should go nowhere in my view, other than to a more central and influencing position in delivering improvements to society, particularly in where people live and work, where and how they travel, and in the delivery of better and more sustainable communities.

Young planners

I am delighted that our young planners – who are up for a top national excellence award for their conference last year – will be meeting this year in Belfast and that one of the big themes for their event will be learning lessons from planning across all of the different systems in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Great Places

We had an excellent presentation from Janet today at the General Assembly on the enormous success of our England’s Great Places competition. One statistic in particular drew my attention. The story that Liverpool had won our award was shared a staggering 20,000 times by readers of the Liverpool Echo. England’s great Places competition has been a great way to get across a very positive message to the public about the role of planners in society.

The competition built on the success of the one held in Scotland in 2014 and the baton passes next to Roisin and colleagues in Wales. I will be watching the Welsh competition very closely! I couldn’t possibly be a judge – as there are so many great places in Wales. You may need multiple winners. Good luck Roisin.

On the international stage

My comments tonight are not restricted to the UK agenda; the Institute already has a significant influence on the international stage. We now have members in over 80 different countries. We are recognised as a global leader in planning. We need to develop and deepen that influence in the future. I want to play my part over the next 12 months. I also want to pay tribute to the work of Peter Geraghty and his colleagues on the International Committee for their extraordinary work in 2015 and it was great to see an internationally themed edition of The Planner.

Habitat III

Without doubt, 2016 is going to be a very important year internationally. Everyone in this room tonight knows how important UN Habitat III is going to be. The RTPI will be doing everything we can to influence this debate with our global partners in the run up to the meeting in Quito, Ecuador.

Habitat III will do four things, all of which I am passionate about:

• Rethink the Urban Agenda:

• Integrate Equity to the Development Agenda

• Foster national urban planning and planned city extensions.

• Decide how relevant sustainable development goals will be supported through sustainable urbanization.

Janet set the bar high 

I want to say, as I draw to a close that I intend to carry on the excellent and innovative work that our Immediate Past President, Janet Askew, has undertaken in 2015. May I, at this point, publically thank Janet for her tireless work over the past year. You have set the bar at the highest level Janet, and I’m somewhat in awe as to how I’m going to get anywhere near the standards and commitment that you have set, but thank you! Please everyone join me in thanking Janet again.

Closing remarks

It leaves me now only to thank you again for me, a council house boy from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, to represent the Royal Town Planning Institute as President in 2016. I must recognise, at this point, the unerring support from my parents throughout my education and career. Logistically, it wasn’t possible for my 86 year old mother to travel today, but I thank her.  

It would be remiss of me not to thank Trudi and her staff,  including Tino and his guidance in media training and public speaking (how have I done so far, Tino?!), and to those who have encouraged me to get to this point – the current father figures that are Vincent Goodstadt and Tony Crook; Martin Willey, Sara Drake and Roisin Wilmott for their support and encouragement, to my previous employers at Cardiff Council, especially Paul Orders, the Chief Executive and Cllr Michael, the Chair of Planning Committee; to my current employers at Belfast City Council, especially Suzanne Wylie, the Chief Executive and Cllr Matt Garrett, the Chair of the Planning Committee. Good working relationships are based on trust and mutual respect, something I have experienced from both organisations, and I thank them.

You’ll notice that I’ve left the most important until last – my wife Ann and my daughters Jenny and Emily for their continued support and encouragement – between my role in Belfast and the role of President, I’ll be away a fair bit in 2016, but I know there’s a strong family base to come home to.

Thank you again – I am humbled and honoured!! 

Listen to Phil's speech

Watch Phil's speech