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Planners as inspirational leaders: three suggestions

19 November 2018 Author: Robin Hambleton

Daniel Slade hosted a roundtable titled ‘Where we go from here: The Future of Leadership in Planning Theory & Practice’, which brought together four academics at the cutting edge of research and practice on the topic.

In the first of a new, 5-part blog series reflecting on the session, participant and Emeritus Professor of City Leadership, Robin Hambleton, highlights three points that struck him from the conversation.

At the UK and Ireland Planning Research Conference, that took place on 3-5 September, Corinne Swain, Arup Fellow, argued, in her excellent opening speech, that government policies are ‘driving planning into a regulatory black hole’, and that ‘we need more confident planners in a better resourced public service’. This need for developing a more confident, outgoing approach to planning was further explored in a Roundtable at the conference. Here, I highlight three points that struck me during the conversation.

Rethinking the meaning of leadership

First, the meaning of ‘leadership’ has long been contested but there is now renewed pressure to rethink it in an uncertain world. The long-established view that sees leadership as a top-down affair in which senior people issue instructions to subordinates has been past its ‘sell-by’ date for decades.

A contrasting view, facilitative leadership, emphasises the importance of leaders listening to diverse views and building coalitions. In this model leadership, sometimes described as integrated, shared or distributed leadership, is not about knowing the answers and encouraging others to follow. Rather, it centres on the capacity to listen, to spot talent and release collective problem-solving capacity.

Hambleton 2Planning practitioners and planning scholars can, it seems to me, make a significant contribution to the development of new thinking relating to leadership theory and practice. For example, planning professionals are often practising collaborative leadership, or systems leadership, in their day-to-day work, and some are very good at it.

But the drawing of leadership lessons from the world of practice is under developed. Very few planning theory books even mention leadership, let alone discuss different approaches to leadership. This is a startling omission when planning professionals themselves often refer to the important role of leadership in bringing about high-quality urban and rural development.

My first point, then, is to suggest that planners should be paying much more attention to leadership. In particular, planning scholars could examine the role of leadership in explaining planning successes and, surely, the development of leadership skills should be at the heart of any planning course.

Place, politics, and power

Second, there is a critical relationship between place-based leadership and place-based power. The super-centralisation of political, legal and fiscal power in Whitehall has weakened the power of place-based institutions, particularly local government, in our society. This is bad news for local democracy as well as for planning.

While researching my recent international book on Leading the Inclusive City I discovered many examples of planners acting as really effective place-based leaders in other countries. In an article for The Planner last year, I celebrated three examples of fine planning leadership: Freiburg, Germany; Malmo, Sweden; and Portland, Oregon. One of the reasons why the planners in these cities are world leading it that they work for elected local authorities that have substantial political autonomy. By comparison planners in the UK have much less political space available to them.

Hambleton_1The importance of strengthening the power of place in Britain was discussed at the Roundtable in Sheffield. One participant offered the intriguing suggestion that it would be helpful to develop the idea of ‘leadership as empowerment of place’. Indeed, activists concerned to strengthen local government in the UK can find common cause with those striving to improve the quality of planning and urban design.

Leadership in planning must be driven by values

At the Roundtable discussion, Malcolm Tait, Head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at The University of Sheffield, wanted members of the panel to say more about the ethics and values that should guide the leadership practiced by planners.

This is, of course, a very important point, particularly at a time when backward-looking, even authoritarian, forces appear to be gathering pace in more than a few societies. It follows that planners, and particularly those serving in positions of leadership, need to stand up for progressive thinking relating to social, environmental and economic justice.

Robin Hambleton

Robin Hambleton

Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol and Director of Urban Answers. His latest book is Leading the Inclusive City published by Policy Press.