What a Year: Promoting planning and planners in challenging times

We've all faced challenges with the reform of the planning system and the recession but let's look forward now, says Richard Summers.

Summers: the President's Prize is challenging RTPI members to say why they're proud to be chartered town planners
Summers: the President's Prize is challenging RTPI members to say why they're proud to be chartered town planners

I had no idea how challenging this year would be when I chose my presidential theme: "promoting planning and planners in challenging times". The Localism Bill was published in December 2010 and has just been enacted. The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was unveiled in July and Trudi Elliott, our chief executive, and I have recently given evidence to the Commons select committee that examined it.

But the big shock came in March in the run up to the Budget when the Prime Minister criticised planners as "the enemies of enterprise". I hit back at these criticisms with the support of the Royal Town Planning Institute's board and said: "You can criticise the planning system as much as you like and we will work with government to make it work better, but we will not tolerate criticisms of professional planners."

We stood by our support in principle for localism and continued to work with ministers and senior civil servants to improve the Localism Bill to achieve a workable planning system. Our amendment to strengthen the duty to cooperate was accepted. Our advice on the membership of neighbourhood forums and on consultation on neighbourhood plans was picked up in the Localism Act.

The draft NPPF kicked up a media storm, prompting 23 of our past presidents to appeal for a reasoned debate. We hosted a summit to find some common ground. We then called for transitional arrangements, clearer wording, clarity on the "presumption in favour of sustainable development", a spatial vision, a statutory basis and positive planning at the select committee. We also challenged the claim that planning delays cost £3 billion a year but the Treasury could not produce any supporting evidence.

But these headlines did not originate at Botolph Lane alone. We drew on advice from RTPI members on various issues through our committees, networks and our policy sounding board. I have given priority in my visits to our regions and nations to sounding out the opinions of members face-to-face, feeding them back into our work and using them to support what we have been saying in the media, to ministers and to senior civil servants.

So what of the future? The last general assembly had a fascinating discussion about "future gazing", initiated by our junior vice-president Peter Geraghty. Break-out groups examined new ways of living, working, reducing carbon emissions and strengthening planning. Wide-ranging conclusions outlined a future work programme for the RTPI, including the need to map the spatial implications of various government policies.

Another conclusion, highlighted by Colin Haylock, our senior vice-president, was to "speak up for planning". I have been suggesting this in my visits to our regions and nations. The planning profession was criticised for "locking up jobs in filing cabinets" in the mid 1980s, but now it is different. I have begun to promote planning and planners, but we must carry this further forward.

Each of us must be ready to "speak up for planning" and to say we are proud to be a chartered town planner - not just a local government officer or a planning consultant. This will prompt the question, "so what is a chartered town planner?" Most people don't realise the specialist skills that planners bring to finding synergy between the economic, social and environmental interests in sustainable development.

So I am now launching the President's Prize for "speaking up for planning". The winner will get a bottle of champagne and applause at the January general assembly.

To enter, come up with one sentence (30 words maximum) to use during the Christmas social whirl to explain why you're proud to be a chartered town planner. Then email it to james.taylor@rtpi.org.uk by 23 December with your membership number only. The presidential team will judge the winner.

Richard Summers is RTPI president for 2011 and head of planning at the Landscape Partnership.

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