Party conference fringe events help promote institute's views

It can be difficult to persuade policy-makers but these key events help to get our members' messages across to politicians, argues James Butler.

The panels at the Royal Town Planning Institute's events at the political parties' autumn conferences were at times a who's who of politicians in planning.

The panels featured appearances from the planning minister, the communities minister, the shadow communities secretary, the shadow planning minister, a member of the Commons communities and local government (CLG) select committee, the author of the Liberal Democrats' response to the National Planning Policy Framework, the parliamentary private secretary to the climate change minister, and members of the Local Government Association's housing and environment board.

The institute ran an invitation-only breakfast and a packed public lunchtime fringe sponsored by Savills and Local Dialogue at each of the main three party conferences, offering us a valuable opportunity to continue to build relationships with key political decision-makers. With chairs from the relevant RTPI region invited to the breakfasts, and the lunchtime sessions open to the public, the events gave planners an opportunity to speak directly to politicians.

The institute in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also works closely with their politicians, but, along with our annual parliamentary reception, the conference fringes are perhaps the most high-profile element of the RTPI's political engagement strategy.

Held in the shadow of the government's 6 September announcements on housing and growth, but before the publication of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the fringe debates were well-informed and lively.

For instance, it was clear from our Lib Dem events how strongly local party activists and councillors opposed proposals to relax domestic permitted development rights. In a debate held before the Lib Dem Conference emergency motion on the topic, minister Don Foster was fully appraised of party members' concern.

Shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn's bravura performance at Labour's lunchtime fringe combined rhetoric with a detailed exposition of his party's analysis of localism. Labour's politicians are not advocating retaining the regional strategies, but they do acknowledge that there will be a strategic gap in the planning system when the strategies are finally abolished.

Nick Boles's attendance at the Conservative Conference policy breakfast, one of his first public appearances as planning minister, was a coup for the institute. With the minister clearly in "listening mode", 50 planners and developers expressed their views on how growth can be delivered more effectively within a plan-led system.

Mark Pawsey, a member of the influential CLG select committee, headlined the lunchtime fringe attended by nearly 100 people, and used the platform to praise the work that Planning Aid England is doing in his Rugby constituency. Keith House (Lib Dem), Clyde Loakes (Labour) and Mike Jones (Conservative) of the Local Government Association's housing and environment board also spoke at our fringes at their respective party conferences.

The association's response to the 6 September announcements was particularly strident in opposing the government proposals, which it perceives as a retreat from localism in planning, and the councillors provided a strong voice on behalf of planners working in local authorities.

Policy-makers are unlikely to be won over solely due to a conference fringe meeting, but these types of events help to promote the institute's profile, establishing it as the authoritative voice of UK planning.

Such political engagement works. The RTPI and Planning Aid England were both favourably mentioned in the second reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill in the Commons, for instance. And RTPI chief executive Trudi Elliott gave oral evidence to the bill committee this month, while head of policy Richard Blyth gave evidence to the CLG select committee on health and planning. Persuading policy-makers is tricky, but our focus is relentless in putting across our members' views to politicians.

The RTPI is grateful to Savills and Local Dialogue for sponsoring the institute's events at the conferences.

James Butler is communications and public affairs officer at the RTPI. For more on the events, to read our briefings and to listen to podcasts of the lunchtime sessions, please visit

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