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Can European research provide planners with useful planning messages?

19 August 2013

Jo Talbot

Evidence to support policy and decision-making in planning is vital. As Michael Harris noted on this blog recently, policymakers are once again promoting the use of evidence in decision-making, including by practitioners. But who has the time to be forever chasing the evidence? Pressures on budgets mean there is less time and money for research and pilots to generate knowledge, and for decision-makers to learn from those who have done potentially useful research. We need more efficient and effective ways of sharing and finding evidence. Could EU funded co-operation projects such as Interreg[1] and ESPON provide a valuable source of planning messages?

Europe map

There could be some 500 projects in these programmes with UK partners. Yet what do we currently know about their results, and is there opportunity to learn from them for the benefit of planning? Whilst projects funded through the EU Co-operation programmes are obliged to include dissemination of project findings, this tends to be focused on the main project findings, conclusions and recommendations, and often done through a dedicated project website. What this dissemination is unlikely to do is to draw out and interpret findings that might be of wider interest to UK spatial planners, linked to current and changing spatial planning policy.

There could be some 500 projects in these programmes with UK partners. Yet what do we currently know about their results, and is there opportunity to learn from them for the benefit of planning?

Even if planners are aware of such projects, there is no single UK database of all EU co-operation projects involving UK partners to access, and no easy way of identifying which projects might provide planners with useful information, tools, guidance or case studies. Nor is it necessarily obvious whether a project could have useful planning messages. On the face of it, a project may appear to have little direct connection with planning – yet further investigation might show it to have some interesting and important planning dimensions.

With the RTPI, we are currently piloting some work to test one way of disseminating results more widely. Two Interreg projects and one 7th Framework Programme project have been used to explore what planning messages can be derived from them and how these might relate to planning policy and practice. So, for example, it might not be immediately apparent what a project exploring how to enhance the role of regional and local authorities and “civil society” in employment might have to offer planners. But reading the SolidarCity project reports about the value of social enterprise for helping disenfranchised people into work makes one wonder how well Employment Land Reviews reflect these more informal and alternative business models, and further, if ELRs are not the place for this (which arguably they aren’t), then where is the evidence base for other business models coming from?

Another example: who has heard of the ‘Adaptation Compass’, a framework and guidance tool for helping to ‘climate proof’ city regions, quarters, town centres, and substantial redevelopment areas? This is intended as an analysis tool for planners, water suppliers, cities experts and other professionals to work through together to identify measures required to climate proof areas, and is available through the ‘Future Cities’ website. 

Of course, planners don’t have time to trawl through numerous websites and project reports to find what might be useful information for their work. We have to find easier ways of providing them access to this knowledge. In our pilot work, we are starting with three projects to see not only what useful planning messages they might contain, but to also find a quick and easy way of presenting this information. We have developed a format – called ‘Project logs’ – for this purpose. But we need your feedback to know whether the type of planning messages and the way the information is presented is going to be useful. We’re asking planners to help, by having a look at the Project logs and completing a short online questionnaire, which can be found on the Project logs page of the RTPI website.

This work being carried out by three RTPI members working with the RTPI Deputy Head of Policy and Research, Michael Harris, and with the support of the RTPI International Committee. Dr Samer Bagaeen leads the University of Brighton Planning School and is a member of the TCPA Policy Council and the RTPI General Assembly. Jo Talbot is an independent planning and economic development consultant (Director of JOHT Resources Ltd) and is a member of the RTPI’s International Committee. Christabel Myers is a freelance consultant with extensive experience and knowledge in EU territorial co-operation and research programmes.

We look forward to hearing your views.

JOHT Resources can be found at:

[1] Interreg is an EU funded programme that supports co-operation between regions in Europe, in order to strengthen social and economic cohesion. ESPON (the European Observation Network on Territorial Development and Cohesion) is an applied research programme into territorial development in Europe. The EU Framework Programme (for research and technological development) is the EU’s main instrument for funding research in Europe.