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Motivated, Empowered and Highly Skilled Planning Profession

Throughout the history, the planning profession have been consistently focused on delivery of more flexible and responsive planning system. The establishment of Royal Town Planning Institute in 1914 empowered planning profession with set of skills necessary for the betterment of delivery of services. With changing times the professional skills required also kept on changing, with planning being more of an artistic expression in early years of establishment of RTPI. In middle years, it gradually transformed itself in to more of a comprehensive large scale planning which later on developed into a managerial and political role leaving the grandiose claims. Environmental concerns became important in the late twentieth century with RTPI getting actively involved with its seven commitments to climate change. The current phase is of localism and the ‘big society’ is focused on community empowerment as central to the planning system. In the last fifty years, with such a gradual change in the outlook towards planning profession, the education in planning has also responded accordingly. Planners graduated from accredited universities have become members of RTPI and RIBA and are actively involved in quality control over aesthetics and delivery of services. They were further motivated and empowered through financial resources and social power. With such power in hand planning profession took the role of coordination between different professional expertise in public and private sector for the development control and the decision making.

The planning profession emerged in the early twentieth century, as a response to the fragmentation of the policy expertise and also the professions that were contributing to urban and regional development. These professions have activities ranging from public health engineers, with more technicalities to the planners within the Royal Town Planning Institute (Originally just the Town Planning Institute). Thus, RTPI which was founded in 1914 promoted the art of town planning for the benefit of the public (Campbell et. al, 2005). These initial efforts in planning were emphasised by the movement of coordinated efforts of different sectors and disciplines, largely through physical plan – making and design skills. Thus, planning profession was the need of the time and through education it expanded rapidly and planning practice moved from social reform movement to the profession (Cullingworth et al., 2015). Town planning was a legacy of the founding fathers such as Howard, Geddes, Sharp and Abercombile. Art and science of town planning profession was characterised by social concern and an architectural expression of grand narratives for well over half a century. Planning professionals were more of a town designers with capacity to create an environment that was both functionally and aesthetically pleasing (Rydin and Evans, 1997).

In Britain town planning became a technical rationality of land use planning in 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s as planners were mostly involved in massive urban development and slum clearance scheme of great complexity. Large scale planning activities such as the strategic planning at regional and sub-regional level also became a high profile planning activity. Thus, planning expertise began to claim a managerial role and the ability to develop plans, policies and strategies for the future to meet specified goals. These large scale claims were not possible without having a system in place which brought emphasis on the system theory which would enable planners to harness the potential of computing in order to provide a model reality (McLoughlin, 1969). The development of system theory in planning, introduced specialised technical skills in information technology were necessary and its application was not restricted only to land use planning. It further developed into a generic models of decision making, procedures and rational comprehensive planning methods. However, soon it was realised that such large scale approach to planning was too ambitious and naive in an effort to technicise complex social and political process (Healey et al., 1982).

From 1970 onwards, for the next two decades, Planning has moved away from these grandiose claims and has moved towards a lower key claims.  For planning expertise such claims would involve managing and manipulating the statutory planning system for both the public and private sectors. Planning professionals have an ability to mediate and oversee the legislative process in managerial and political terms, and of procedures and case law, linked to knowledge of the economic process by which urban development is generated and shaped (Rydin and Evans, 1997). However, during the neo-liberal age or Thatcherism of 1980s individual freedom and personal choice became prominent and planning took a back seat undermining the notion of public interest. Thus, planning practice had a major challenge in this period, dealing with the rejection of collectivist solutions and wider forces of marketization and consumerism over self-centred choices (Cullingworth et al., 2015). Further, the politicisation of planning issues and local government in this period radically transformed the approach as neutral and the political (Johnson, 1993). Due to fusion of planning profession in to political arena the planners are the groups that were blamed when the things went wrong (Grant, 1999).

Restructuring of the Thatcher years was the next agenda for the planning profession during the period of 1990s onwards which was also a response the criticism of planning as technical rationality at both a theoretical and practical level. However, while it appears that planning now occupies a more specific space, this formulation still sees planning expertise in terms, skills related to planning policy formulation and implementation. This normative view allows planning to move into other policy areas, such as the ‘new environmental agenda’ and seemed destined to form the next phase (Rydin and Evans, 1997). In response to this the RTPI has engaged in a comprehensive debate about how we to tackle the challenge of climate change, leading to a defined programme for action. The RTPI's seven commitments on ‘Planning to Live with Climate Change’ were launched at the RTPI Planning Convention 2009, These include, Promoting behavioural change, adapting existing places, working towards responsive legislation and policies, improving current practice, celebrating best practice, compiling a compendium of best practice and finally, developing climate change education and skills (Morphet, 2011).

The latest phase of planning puts emphasis on localism and the ‘big society’ under the coalition government (2010-15). In this phase planning was considered as a collective phenomenon where it was something done among a group of individuals with no single claim to an overriding expertise or knowledge base. Such an ethos demands an approach of planning for the communities and not for any individual which was a dominant approach in twentieth century planning. With this community approach in planning public sector planners who found themselves engaged not just in ‘bureaucratic proceduralism’ but community participation as well (Cullingworth et al., 2015). Planning has found itself entering the murky water of direct political involvement as mediation is after all a political task. Planners have to find a path between genuine community engagement and civil society, with vested interest groups.

The new objective of the planning profession is to build consensus in the decision making process. With more number of actors and stakeholders the problem of building consensus is compounded and thus, planning is dissolved in the political arena making environmental planning explicitly and entirely a political process of talking, hearing and arguing. Thus, planning is about facilitating the decision making process or acting as a catalyst in its implementation (Rydin and Evans, 1997). State mediation has been a major factor in the creation of the planning professionals known as Chartered Town Planners. These professionals remain the central figure in much planning policy, and are open to change desired by inputs from other specialist professional. Data and policy inputs on roads from transport engineers, air quality from environmental scientists, housing need from demographers, and storm water drainage from water engineers all develop comprehensively into the strategic planning and development control decisions by the planners (Rydin, 2002).

In terms of education in planning as we look back over fifty years, we can see that analytical techniques are of prime importance in guiding academic curricula and planning practice. Gradually increasing status of planning profession has encouraged the professors and practitioners to developed sophisticated analytical tools and a commitment to utilitarian analysis. The best of the students and the most influential faculty members are engaging themselves in the field of public policy and economics which has become increasingly quantitative and influential. In a number of universities, schools or departments of urban planning and architecture have been eliminated and replaced by programs in public policy. Even where this has not happened, curricula in planning programs have shifted. Classes in modelling, simulation techniques, and statistical methods have become more central, than the design studios with courses dealing with legal structures and decision making processes. This reflects current trends in planning as well; which is oriented towards framing of data analysis. Thus, planning education and practice are more oriented towards the result oriented consequences of policies rather than the morality or the ethical content of those in the position of the authority (Wachs, 2013).

Thus, looking at the past experience of hundred years of planning profession, we can say that more flexible and a responsive planning system will not be delivered through dusty volumes of policy sitting on the shelf but through motivated, empowered and highly skilled planning profession (McNulty, 2003).  Discussing this view further, it is important to note that planners bring some expertise claims to the planning process and that is how they are different from the bureaucrats. Administration of the policy system is the main function of bureaucrats and have little or nothing to do with the actual decision taken during implementation. However, this is just the basic difference and beyond this there are number of different ways of conceptualising professions do exist (Rydin, 2002). Professional accreditation is thus not just an advantage for an individuals in the market-place, it is indeed a source of social power for the professional group. This power is exercised vis-à-vis those who do not have the expertise. Thus planning professionals become representatives of a lay public and they use their skills and scarce and esoteric knowledge for the benefit of the society (Larson, 1984). Hence professions are a form of social institution that certifies and credentialises knowledge and attributes to a certain groups. These groups are planning professionals who are granted with financial resources and social power.

Other than the power, professionalism is attached to ethical claims such as altruism, social responsibility and a desire to pursue the common good is what makes a professional the guardian of the public interest. Therefore planning professionals are given considerable discretional power based on the assumption that they will not misuse it. This view is equally shared by those primarily in the public sector and private sector such as town planners and chartered surveyors respectively (Rydin, 2002). They are empowered through professional organisations such as Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as consultees on aesthetic control and design guidance. They have claims over public policy issues and contribute to decisions related to design matters.  Similarly the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have a control over waste disposal which is considered as a local authority function and most of RTPI members are within local authorities.

In the latest approach to planning as public choice approach, there is hardly any room for self-interested actions of the professionals. In a political sphere self-seeking in itself undermines the group’s effectiveness and its image in the market-place. Between the two extremes of such an altruistic profession and a self-seeking one lies the influential approach developed which evaluates professions as a form of occupational control. According to Johnson professionalism is a specific form of occupational control, of organising and restraining the working practices of specific groups of workers known as ‘member’ of the profession (Rydin, 2002). Some of these members draw on knowledge from the natural sciences, and others from the social sciences. There are professionals who work in public sector such as environmental health officers and others work in private sector such as architects and surveyors who were initially working in public sector. Out of these all these planning related professions some are of high status and others of lower status with a varying degree of power. The lines of division are many but nevertheless it is the nature of these activities as professions which work towards implementation of planning policies (Campbell et. al, 2005).

The concept of empowerment involves people using information to take political control. This often involves restructuring planning organisations, and requires changes in the attitudes and working practices of planners. Professional organisations can be opened up to allow community groups to become directly involved in the decision-making that occurs within them and can also be decentralised to encourage participation. Local area offices and professional teams, even local mini town halls, can give government a new, more approachable and challengeable face with a wide range of motives towards decentralisation. It is not automatically linked to radical notions of empowerment and is an attack on a professionalised welfare state. Thus, localised professionals, are useful in providing improved public services and are accountable for these. In addition, they extend their distribution of resources towards the disadvantaged and, most important, to raise political awareness among the local electorate (Rydin, 2002). According to Johnson state and profession should conceive a relationship that is not for the authority or control but as integrated structures evolving with a combination of occupational strategies, government policies and shifts in public opinion (Johnson, 1995). In planning profession there is no identifiable client and the profession needs to cater to the drivers and sometimes conflicting situations and have an altruistic commitments to public services and welfare of the communities (Campbell and Marshall, 1998). However, the ‘New Vision’ has a major shift in approach to spatial planning practice as interdisciplinary knowledge base (RTPI, 2003) and demands planning profession a continued output of effective professional expertise (Campbell et. al,2005).

To illustrate this further let us see the case study of North Blacon Residents Association (NBRA) which shows how it got benefited from Planning Aid England volunteer assistance.  They prepared and submitted the representations against a planning application for the development of a large scale student village on Green Belt land to the north of Chester. This was a complex case with the developer who submitted three planning applications, each of which was refused. In addition to providing planning expertise the volunteer they also provided moral support and inspirational words keeping the client motivated to continue to their final success. Thus, assisting groups in making representations on development proposals provides an excellent opportunity for Chartered members to develop their knowledge and skills of the planning system and, in particular, development management. (RTPI, 2015)

In Conclusion, we can see that planning profession has not been consistent in its approach and is constantly evolving with time. The new set of professional skills and education required by the planners have been modified and improved accordingly. Organisations such as RTPI have been constantly working towards motivation and empowerment of planning profession for the implementation of planning policies. Planning profession plays a very important role in getting communities involved in decision making process and keeps them updated with the latest policies and how they would affect their lives. With committed planning professionals, RTPI help communities in improving quality of their lives with better health and environment strategies. Finally, a committed action is what is required for making thing happen on the ground and that action is the result of active involvement of planning profession.


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