You’ve probably seen the ‘Great Britain’ trade and investment posters which emphasise the UK’s strongest export sectors – from cutting-edge technology to higher education, engineering to the creative industries.
But why no ‘Planning is Great’ poster?
For a start, it’s rather difficult to get at precise figures for what UK planning earns as an export.
According to official data, the UK is a net exporter of ‘Construction Services’, which covers architecture, surveying and planning (but for which planning is not separated out). In 2015 (the latest figures available), we exported services worth £1.416 billion while importing £503 million, giving a healthy net positive balance of £913 million (see All tables 2015 - Table C1 from the ONS).
The UK is also a net exporter of ‘Technical and Scientific Services’, which includes architectural, engineering and surveying services (again, planning seems to be included but not differentiated within this category). In 2015, we exported technical services worth £9.194 billion while only importing £1.878 billion – an even stronger net positive balance of £7.316 billion.
According to a 2014 UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) brochure, UK construction design and planning consultancies generate exports of £2 billion.
In reality, splitting out these figures might be rather artificial anyway, since it might not reflect the way that larger consultancies, especially working on major projects, are able to provide a range of services – in other words, planning is just one part of an integrated offer they are able to make to clients.
Even if we haven’t got our own poster yet, the strength and potential of planning has been recognised by the UK’s main export body. According to a 2014 UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) brochure, UK construction design and planning consultancies generate exports of £2 billion, and this likely to increase given the forecast 70 per cent growth in the global construction industry by 2025 (UKTI has subsequently been replaced by the Department for International Trade, DIT).
Other countries increasingly need – and are willing to pay for – our skills and capabilities, for two main reasons.
Firstly, we live in a rapidly urbanising world. More than half of the world’s population already live in urban areas. A staggering 1.5 million people join the global urban population every week. Most future urban population growth will take place in Africa and Asia, placing huge demands on infrastructure and housing, but also representing unprecedented opportunities for economic growth and poverty reduction. As UKTI noted: “Globally recognised for its experience in city planning and development and urban regeneration, the UK is the ideal partner for major construction projects worldwide.”
Secondly, UK planners have strengths in the very areas that are critical to sustainable urban development. UK-based consultants are renowned for their ability to formulate plans for the development and management of towns, cities and wider metropolitan areas, encompassing everything from sustainability and climate adaptation, to traffic congestion and health. Indeed, contra the critics of planning, UK planners have developed these skills because of our environmental and other standards.
With its international partners, the Institute has been working hard to put planning at the heart of this new urban agenda. But it’s also great business for the UK, as UKTI recognised in emphasising UK planning’s expertise in smart and green cities. The potential here is huge: by 2030 an estimated £200 billion market will be on offer globally for those in business, government and academia to improve the way cities are planned and operated (according to Arup, Future Cities Catapult and UKTI). For smaller and independent consultancies, we’ve recently published an introductory guide to working internationally, and the RTPI will be engaging with the smart cities agenda through its Better Planning programme.
The potential here is huge: by 2030 an estimated £200 billion market will be on offer globally for those in business, government and academia to improve the way cities are planned and operated.
Other countries also look to the UK for its strengths in planning education. Around a third of students at RTPI-accredited planning schools are from outside the UK, and our leading planning schools are establishing links with foreign universities (not to mention the numerous international research collaborations). This all adds to the strong international reputation of UK planning.
It might help though if planning was better recognised at home. As UKTI stated (chiming with our work on the value of planning): “In recent years, UK [planning and regeneration] expertise has helped to transform cities such as Birmingham, London, Manchester and Newcastle, creating stronger local economies, employment opportunities and social benefits.”
This points to what we might call this "The Economist paradox’: in virtually every issue of the magazine there’s an article that critical of ‘planning restrictions’ at home, while another piece emphasises the need for emerging economies to plan and manage their cities better.
Despite the more positive turn in the housing and planning debate recently, perhaps Westminster governments in particular have suffered from the same paradox?
It’s time to assert that planning is a great British strength, with a sterling reputation abroad, in a rapidly-growing market, that could help to achieve global development goals.
As we start to think seriously about the UK’s economic future outside the EU, all of the UK’s governments need to recognise that exporting planning seems like a case of win-win-win.
Or as some might put it, a case of having our cake and eating it.