Conference points way to localism

Localism set the agenda for the Young Planners Conference with a look at the challenges and opportunities, reports Laura Price.

The roar that went up in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium when Wales clinched victory in the 2005 Six Nations rugby tournament, the country's first since 1978, is considered to be reflected in the optimistic buzz that makes the city such an appealing place to visit.

Despite the Welsh planning system being isolated from communities secretary Eric Pickles's emerging localism agenda, the boost to national confidence provided the perfect backdrop for understanding and debating the implications of localism in planning - the theme of this year's RTPI Young Planners Conference in Cardiff last month.

It soon became clear that there is a lot that can be learnt from the Welsh way. A key message that was taken away by delegates was the importance and value of sharing best practice across the UK.

Hosted by Young Planners Cymru and attracting more than 170 delegates and speakers from across the UK, the event brought together a range of speakers, debates, workshops and study tours to give a fresh perspective on localism.

Opening the proceedings, RTPI president Ann Skippers referred to how localism is dramatically changing the planning landscape across all sectors. With the decentralisation and localism bill expected later this month, Skippers looked at the opportunities and challenges faced by planners and the work that the RTPI is doing to tackle industry concern.

She described the RTPI's discreet lobbying of ministers and its alliance of business, environment and development bodies which stressed to Pickles the need to address larger-than-local issues within the localist reform of the planning system.

In this respect, the president reiterated her priority to work with other organisations and "to get on with it and grasp the opportunity".

Next up was Welsh Assembly Government chief planner Rosemary Thomas, who proclaimed that "we know about localism in Wales, we do localism in Wales".

Having far fewer local authorities than England, this in effect enables co-operation and activity at a local scale, she explained. The need to use opportunities to talk about the way we do things, to take responsibility and be realistic in what we can and cannot do was emphasised to delegates.

Later in the morning, delegates heard international and local responses to local distinctiveness from 2010 Young Planner of the Year Tom Venables and Carole-Anne Davies from the Design Commission for Wales.

Venables reflected on his trip to the American Planning Association conference in New Orleans. Davies followed with a discussion on how local distinctiveness has been achieved in Wales through appropriate and contextual design responses.

The afternoon saw delegates given a choice of breakout sessions linked to localism and local distinctiveness, including urban design language, development management and the historic environment.

To end the day, two speakers gave their contrasting perspectives on localism for planning. Savills director Chris Potts anticipated the impact on major sports development down to community stadia and the local provision of recreation facilities. Finally, Paul Wimbush from Lammas provided an innovative example of localism in a low-impact development based on permaculture principles in West Wales.

The second day saw presentations from Professor John Punter from Cardiff University and Lee Jones of TACP. This was followed by Young Planners Den, an interactive session led by RTPI Cymru chair Lucie Taylor.

The event concluded with study tours covering areas of best practice including Cardiff Bay, St Fagan's National History Museum, St David's and Newport's waterside regeneration. The RTPI provided drop-in sessions on the assessment for professional competence and Planners in the Workplace.

One delegate summed up the conference as providing a healthy mix between learning exercises and opportunities to meet like-minded professionals. For another, meeting other planners has "re-ignited the passion for planning".

Laura Price sits on Young Planners Cymru's steering group and is the student representative on the RTPI Wales management board. She is an assistant planner for Savills in its Cardiff office.

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