Riding the rollercoaster: rousing visits and political challenges

The last few months has meant getting to know a new planning minister and going on some inspiring official visits, reports Colin Haylock.

"Are you enjoying your year as president?" is a question I'm often asked. My response more recently has been: "Do you want the answer I would have given on September 5th or the one from September 6th - or the one now, two months on?"

On 6 September, Greg Clark and Bob Neill, two ministers with whom the RTPI had built open and constructive relationships, moved to other roles. We also saw some extensively criticised further ideas for changes to the planning system and the widely reported statement that the Prime Minister and deputy prime minister would say: "Get the planners off our backs."

My riposte to our PM was tempered by the fact that neither he nor Nick Clegg said what they were reported to be about to say - far better then to focus on the positives of planning and what it can and does deliver and try to get Cameron to do that too.

Within a week of the reshuffle, we were having our first meeting with new planning minister Nick Boles - a positive start to a relationship that continued with him contributing to one of the institute's two fringe sessions at the Conservative Party Conference.

Do have a look at the material on our website about this and our other fringes across the party conferences, kindly sponsored by Savills and Local Dialogue. This engagement is proving helpful in building a deeper understanding of planning among politicians at a national and more local level, and reinforces our generally more local political support through our Politicians in Planning Association.

In contrast to all this politics, I've been introduced in my travels to so much great practice, so many great outcomes from talented planners supported by visionary politicians and chief executives, and so much enthusiasm for quality of place.

Open House - London's weekend of free access to around 750 buildings, many of which are not normally open to the public - was popular. I joined a long queue on the streets of Haggerston and another in Queen's Park to see innovative modern houses cunningly grafted into the grain of Victorian suburbs. Both were challenging projects in local terms that planners had championed as applications.

The West Midlands introduced me to "lean system thinking", which in Wolverhampton is transforming the council's development management activity, and a group of planners who feel professionally enriched by lean systems increasing their personal and professional responsibility for the handling of applications.

The East of England visit included the work of two councils with chief executives from a planning background: Ipswich and Southend. Both had taken a clear view on the regenerative potential of higher education in town centres.

In Ipswich, the decision to locate University Campus Suffolk on the town's waterfront transformed its character. In Southend, the political and officer team, including next year's RTPI president Peter Geraghty, have brought together an RTPI Award-winning approach to public realm and seafront improvements with a strategy that brings the Southend Campus of the University of Essex onto the high street, making it an infinitely richer, more varied and sustainable place.

In Belfast, I was able to contribute to an RTPI-run session beginning the process of preparing councillors for their planning responsibilities as Northern Ireland devolves planning from central government to 11 new local authorities in 2015 (see article, p34). The institute and its members are offering much appreciated support with this change.

But to close, my most recent "up" on the presidential rollercoaster was contributing to the second day of a hugely successful Young Planners' Conference. Held in London for the first time, the event based at the home of the Royal Institute of British Architects was a 300-delegate sell out. So much commitment, so much enthusiasm, so much openness to challenge established ideas.

If the "English" Prime Minister and his deputy wanted to seriously test the water in terms of what planning is really about, witness our passion for it and see what it is achieving despite difficult times, they should have travelled with me over the past few weeks and finished up at the Young Planners' Conference.

Colin Haylock is RTPI president for 2012. He runs the consultancy Haylock Planning and Design.

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