ANALYSIS: Will an umbrella hold water?

There are concerns that the upcoming Egan review is not up to scratch, says Huw Morris.

It is the fastest of consultation exercises. As the Egan review of skills across the built environment enters the final furlong, with less than six weeks to go before its recommendations are scheduled to be published, its task group is posing 14 questions for professional organisations to answer. Responses must be "as brief as possible" and submitted in less than a month's time.

But it is not just the nature of the consultation that is causing furrowed brows. There are considerable grumbles that cut to the heart of the review.

Does the review team understand the planning system and the challenges it faces? Do some of its members know what they are talking about? Have key aspects of the review already been decided? Is it going too fast?

The review has proceeded at a breakneck speed and will be completed within six months if its leader, Sir John Egan, sticks to his original timetable.

Compare that with the RTPI's education commission, which took more than two years to publish its recommendations. The Egan review, by its own admission, takes on a much bigger job, casting its eye over around 100 occupations concerned with sustainable communities.

The issue is highly sensitive, with few sources wishing to go public.

Early indications are that the review will have to set aside a number of alarming misconceptions and rethink its position or risk an absolute slating when its final report is unveiled in December. "There will be a lot of good ideas in the final report, but I'm worried that a lot of the nonsensical stuff will torpedo them," says one insider.

The optimists argue that Egan is keen to spark a debate and has no predetermined ideas. The pessimists are gearing up for a fight. There is even concern within the ODPM that the review may need to be "sidelined". No-one wants to see a repeat of Lord Birt's disastrous review of transport two years ago. The former BBC boss's "blue skies thinking" suggested a network of tolled superhighways, an idea that was roundly denounced by everyone associated with transport.

Some of the review's early "conclusions" are open to challenge. Egan doubts whether demand for affordable housing is ever higher than 30 per cent and believes that 50 per cent targets - such as those espoused by London mayor Ken Livingstone -will only lead to social ghettos. This view appears to ignore the fact that escalating house prices are driving the recruitment crisis that bedevils the public sector.

Key workers, whether they be nurses, teachers, police officers or firefighters, simply cannot afford to live in property hot spots, so threatening the public sector reforms on which New Labour has staked its electoral reputation.

Planners are not immune to this trend, with poor pay cited as a key factor behind the profession's shortfall of between 5,000 and 7,000 people. More dangerously for Egan, his views cut across ODPM policy at the time when the department is gearing up for the next comprehensive spending review.

Further concerns centre on the research techniques adopted by MORI's Bob Worcester, a member of the review's task group and a trusted Egan confidante. At issue here is the process management that informs the backgrounds of some task group members and whether that gives them any insight into planning.

There are certainly suggestions that some have faced "a steep learning curve and are not yet near the top of it", as one developer diplomatically points out. Egan himself spent much of his career in the car industry, where a customer focus on vehicle quality is essential. But this is an alien concept when planning a community for the next 50 or 75 years.

"You can see where they're coming from," one commentator points out.

"Process management and learning about economies of scale and efficiencies all tie in to this agenda of streamlining planning. But people's subjective feelings about what makes a good place is not the same thing as delivering their long-term sustainability. Planning is all about what you deliver in the longer term, but the degree to which this is reflected in the review is debatable."

Egan also wants to see pro-business leadership from local authorities.

This is ruffling a few feathers, with some leading figures privately arguing that the view of planning departments just saying no to developers is a myth. "The majority want to work with developers," one observer says.

"Some applications are simply not up to scratch, while others are disputed by the local community. Planning is all about democracy and councils are there to serve their communities, not the wanton interests of business."

Another argues that Egan must take on board structural problems with the planning system, pointing to nimbies who block housing developments while the voices of residents who benefit from such schemes are unheard.

"That is a structural fault in the system and one that the planning bill does not address. Until it does, merely saying councils should be pro-business misses the point," says this source.

The formal consultation exercise, launched last week, asks whether there are "generic skills, knowledge and behaviours" that all built environment professionals should have. It wonders whether local authority members and officers have "the right economic and financial skills, knowledge and culture to work positively with developers in delivering improvements to local communities".

Behind the scenes, it looks like the review has done its own thinking.

The review team's working group on skills, chaired by IBM director Rebecca George, claims to have identified a series of core attributes that built environment professionals should have (see box). Unfortunately they are articulated in the kind of meaningless psychobabble beloved by US lifestyle gurus and management junkies.

The education and training available to the core professions present a major obstacle to acquiring these skills, according to the working group.

In its view, no single occupation can bring them all to bear. It proposes setting up a "national confederation for sustainable communities" which would work with individual professions with education or continuing professional development (CPD) arrangements in place for any of the core skills.

The proposal envisages close co-operation between professional bodies.

But the working group does not spell out whether the confederation would be an alliance between institutes or a quango under the aegis of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which has been parking its tanks on a number of lawns within professional education this year.

If this proposal (Planning, 31 October, p1) features in the final Egan report, there will be alarm in some corners at the idea of professional institutes losing ownership of their training and accreditation processes.

"We've worked on these things for decades and have continually updated them. Why should they now be decided by some Johnny come lately or an unaccountable quango?" says one source.

While mindful of complacency, many professional groups resent the implication that they are not up to the sustainable community building job. "We are already using most of these skills. This is a bit like teaching granny how to suck eggs," says one participant. Others point to the fact that whatever its shape or form, the confederation will need government cash to operate. The Treasury will not want Egan to come up with any argument for additional funding.

Whatever the reservations, a new outside body could end up defining education and CPD for professionals already qualified and working to build sustainable communities. They are seen as the first priority for training in the core skills identified by the working group, the bulk of it using on-the-job training through projects or secondments. The proposed confederation would define standards and accreditation for core skills where there are gaps, with universities, employers and regional centres of excellence given the job of plugging them.

"There will be a big shift away from the research-orientated training that is the road down which many of the universities and schools have gone and has produced fewer people with relevant skills," says one insider.

"Money has gone into the planning schools based on their research records. The motivation of these departments has not been based on the calibre of people they put out. That has got to change."

Details of the Egan review consultation can be viewed via www.planning.haynet.com.

Views should be forward to eganreview@odpm.gsi.gov.uk by 28 November.

EGAN REVIEW'S CORE SKILLS FOR BUILT ENVIRONMENT PROFESSIONALS

Inclusive visioning: The working group urges "innovating thinking and approaches" to engaging the community. This includes the "ability to vision a future state for a community", articulating that vision and getting "buy-in from a wide variety of people". It also entails "imagining a future state and simultaneously the implications of getting there".

- Strategic planning: Not what planners would think, but masterplanning. The aim is to ensure that "processes and structures continue to achieve the purposes for which they were established".

- Leadership in sustainable communities: The working group thinks this core skill means "inspiring others" by coaching, mentoring and developing "future leaders". Professionals should lead on change, communicate vision, and keep an eye on the cash.

- Breakthrough thinking and brokerage: A whole vocabulary of management-speak surrounds this area. Brief highlights include "thinking outside the box" and "creative thinking, making lateral connections and effective networking". It is also about "bringing together unusual combinations of people, skills and plans to leverage each component and end up with much more than the sum of the parts".

- Teamwork: This translates as a "genuine desire for the team, collectively, to win". It needs a "can-do attitude" in a "networked environment where advice is sought and readily given, coaching is rewarded and teams are created with the right skills and paper qualifications".

- Making it happen despite the constraints: The working group wants to see energy and resources focused on ensuring that objectives are reached.

It talks of "understanding and being realistic about constraints but not accepting artificial barriers and challenging unrealistic targets or timescales". It also means using the "80-20 rule", a concept much beloved by management junkies that 20 per cent of your effort achieves 80 per cent of the results.

- Process and change management: Sustainable communities need experts that can manage and improve the processes involved. Professionals are urged to "embrace change enthusiastically".

- Financial management and appraisal: This is about ensuring that the "triple bottom line" is understood. It includes the ability to create and manage a business plan, understand risks and rewards, appraise business proposals and understand where finance for sustainable communities comes from and how to attract it.

- Stakeholder management: This heading covers "communicating and building relationships with and between relevant stakeholders, understanding their relative impact and importance", while bringing on board key groups "to retain critical mass support for the vision".

- Analysis, decision-making, learning from mistakes and evaluation: This revolves around making decisions in the light of available facts, comprehensive data analysis and sharing blame for mistakes.

- Attracting financial capital: Community builders need to know how schemes are financed, who the major players are and how to get them to cough up the cash.

- Communication: The working group alludes to the ability to communicate a vision to professionals, the public, the media, schools, politicians and businesses and to manage misinformation, rumour and gossip.


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