Chris Murray is interim chief executive at the Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC). He explained that the academy was set up by the ODPM in response to the Egan review of the skills required to create sustainable communities.
Despite its name it is not an academic body or training provider. It is a small, lightweight body working at ground level to promote the development of cross-sectoral, generic skills. Its work is outcome-focused. The test of learning is not how enjoyable it is but how effective it is in delivering outcomes. Effective learning changes behaviour.
The academy works with education providers, trainers, professional bodies and employers to identify skills gaps, target areas for learning programmes, and pilot programmes and to develop learning modules. Kevin Murray, a member of the Egan review, recommended that the RTPI should engage positively with the ASC, not as a parent or guardian but as an equal partner. Planners have to remember that they are not the only or even the leading players on this stage.
Other organisations are already better engaged than the RTPI and there is a real risk of being left behind. He wants to see the RTPI fully engaged in developing training models that really work - while abandoning those that do not - with a practical approach to sustainability that produces tangible results on the ground.
Simin Davoudi, professor of planning and environment at Leeds Metropolitan University, talked about planners' skills. What is planners' unique competence?
The profession has not developed as an intellectual discipline it its own right and has drawn instead on other foundation disciplines.
The knowledge base of planning is not exclusive to planners. Their competence is not what they know, but what they do with that knowledge. Planning is the conscious intervention of collective actors in the production of space. Planners have the skills that enable them to intervene effectively in socio-spatial processes to shape their outcome.
Jim Claydon drew on his experience of inter-professional education at the University of the West of England (UWE) and more recently of marine spatial planning. At UWE the approach to inter-professional education was firmly grounded on the particular areas of knowledge and competence of each profession. The profession came first, inter-professionalism followed.
His more recent experience of marine spatial planning, as part of a consortium commissioned by DEFRA for the government's marine stewardship initiative, was very instructive. Without the fresh emphasis on the spatial nature of planning it is unlikely that anyone would have asked a town, country or land-use planner to work on marine planning.
In fact, the spatial planner has much to offer that is lacking within the agencies that currently manage the marine environment - forward thinking, analysis, forecasting, sectoral integration, integration of vertical policy contexts and the application of policy and conflict resolution (implementation).
Claydon said that planners' three main weaknesses relate to specialist skills, ecology (the big issues) and development economics and process.
Tony Ray reminded the assembly that Egan regarded planning as a core profession.
He reminded them too of the words of the RTPI Royal Charter, which describe planning as both an art and a science.
When Ray entered the profession in the 1960s planning was too dominated, in his view, by social science. He welcomed what he sees as a return to its true character, with an emphasis on generic skills in governance, leadership and collaboration, applied to the process of first planning, then delivering what has been planned, and finally managing what has been delivered.
Inter-disciplinary working revealed skills gaps that need to be filled rather than bridged. This could be seen in fields such as urban design, regeneration and community planning. Capacity building is vital for all stakeholders involved in developing sustainable communities.
After these presentations, the assembly split into three break-out sessions, each of which then reported back to the full assembly, followed by a general discussion. Much ground was covered, including:
- Engagement with the ASC - everyone was strongly in favour - coupled with promoting planners' unique skills.
- The differing roles of universities and employers in the acquisition of both technical and generic skills.
- The role of the ASC. Is it purely operational, helping to deliver a particular government programme, or does it have a wider, more critical remit? The answer was not wholly clear.
- The fact that different skills sets are needed for different purposes, in different places, at different times. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
- The need for more diversity in the educational and professional backgrounds of entrants to the profession as well as ethnicity and gender.
- The long-term benefits to the profession of environmental education in schools.
- The benefits of reskilling staff and encouraging people back to the profession at a time when there are insufficient planners with the skills to decide major development proposals.
- An action programme for the RTPI. Suggestions included a concordat with employers on lifelong learning and a prospectus setting out planning's role in relation to those of other professions and disciplines.
- The need to maintain and acquire new technical and generic skills.
Specialist skills must be constantly monitored and changed.
- Michael Napier is a former director of member services at the RTPI.
- A fuller account of the discussion and of previous general assembly discussions can be viewed via www.rtpi.org.uk.