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Never be afraid to ask “why?”

23 April 2019 Author: Huw Evans

When meeting new people, whether formally, socially or by chance, planners are invariably asked what we do. The response is usually straightforward, and we can go to some length in describing what we do, who we do it for and, hopefully, put planning in a positive light at the same time.

If the conversation gets into more depth we can also get drawn into the ‘how’ we do it. This can get a bit more involved. Nonetheless we are generally comfortable and confident that we can draw on our experience of dealing with elected members, clients and the public who know less than we do. Well, in most cases anyway.

However, just like responding to a persistent child, the more searching question to answer is the ‘why?’. 

Why exactly are we doing it

There is a pause whilst we reflect and try to recall the reason why we do it, which may be blurred due to the fact that “we’ve always done it this way” and “that’s how I was taught”. Or more often, “that’s what the regulations (or policies) say”.  We tend to rely on that sort of response because we are so busy getting on with the job that we seldom have the time to take a step back and consider whether the policy or regulation is actually delivering what it was intended to achieve.

But this kind of reflection is essential if we are to have an effective planning system that meets the needs of a community that is subject to, and influenced by, the pace of technological and communication change which impacts significantly on the social and economic environment.

How relevant are some of the policies which sit within the time scale of the development plan when the world is changing outside? Can we rely on ‘material considerations’ to give less weight to an ‘out of date’ policy? In practice this seldom happens because there is a reluctance on the party of decision makers to go against policy even when tested on appeal. The Inspectorate’s position is that their role is to apply policy and not make it.

Reflection in our job is essential

Unless we look more closely behind a particular policy or regulation to understand why it was introduced in the first place then we are in danger of blindly following a route which will not lead us to where we should be.

We should reflect on whether policies are actually addressing the issues they were designed to resolve. As an example, the rural exceptions policy has not delivered any significant affordable housing but has been a part of national and local planning policy for 20 years. How long do heads have to remain firmly in the sand before the penny drops?

Local people in the rural communities have been failed by policies which are not tested. This is despite review policies that exist in every development plan.  I like the quote from Winston Churchill who said, “No matter how beautiful the strategy you should occasionally look at the results”.

How true and how relevant that is to the implementation of planning policy. Thankfully we now have the RTPI’s research which should lead to a long review of how we deal with rural housing need.

Too much policy and guidance?

However, it raises the question of why does a more thoughtful process not happen in the minds of planners?  Part of the answer lies in the recent RTPI/Newcastle University report on the ‘Austerity Planner’.

One of its conclusions is that in the current climate of resource shortage public sector planners simply do not have the time to reflect on the work they do. Worryingly for the profession this has led to a box-ticking culture that has become an increasing concern of mine.

To a large extent this has also been brought about by an over-regulated system with far too much policy and guidance detail which leaves little opportunity to make value judgements based on particular circumstances in particular areas. The old ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate for good sensible planning.

Space beyond control and regulation

Unless we take a step back and reflect on our actions and the basis on which we are making decisions, then we will not be best equipped to serve our community. If we continue to follow the ‘that’s what it says in the instruction manual’ approach, then we will begin to lose credibility as a forward-thinking profession.

Control and regulation will always be a major part of the planning system, but we need to ensure that we remain pro-active, enabling and encouraging of innovative solutions to the challenges of a swiftly changing environment. 

We should never be afraid to ask the question ‘why?’ and challenge ourselves in doing so.


Huw Evans

Huw Evans

Huw Evans is the Chair of RTPI Cymru.