Spatial strategy shaper

Spatial planning faces a crunch test as the world grapples with looming recession and climate change, RTPI policy and practice committee chairman Richard Summers tells Huw Morris.

These are troubled times. First came the credit crisis, quickly followed by draining confidence, plunging markets and house repossessions. Then redundancies, recession and economic meltdown became the buzzwords for an uncertain era.

Richard Summers, chairman of the RTPI's planning policy and practice committee and independent consultant, is not only a leading proponent of spatial planning but has a varied and wide-ranging background in economic development. He has seen a thing or two in his time, but today's troubles are something else.

"This recession, if that is what it becomes, will be unlike any other we have seen. Previous recessions have shifted us progressively out of primary industries and manufacturing into services and knowledge-based sectors. This time we have seen credit go wrong," he reflects.

"It hit the housing market first. We have seen a frightening slowdown, not only in sales but also in house building and more broadly across the construction sector. There will be repercussions locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The shortage of credit reduces companies' and institutions' abilities to carry on their activities. From the planners' point of view it affects physical development.

"The question must be what will be left after all the fall-out from the present economic situation. We don't know yet how the remains of what we know will be reconstituted. Where will the seeds of growth of future economic development rise?"

Summers has worked through at least three recessions - in the mid 1970s, the late 1970s to early 1980s and the late 1980s to early 1990s. "Before that I was too young to know what recession was about," he says. Everyone knows about the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s and their profound effects on the structure of economies and the attitudes of earlier generations, forcing people to become very frugal with their cash and very careful with their savings.

But the UK government's bail-out of the banks and the unprecedented co-ordinated cut in interest rates across the world still leave serious questions unanswered, Summers fears. "I wonder whether this national and international support for the banking sector, where public institutions are putting taxpayers' money into the private sector, will demand a quid pro quo," he observes.

"In due course, it may give planners and related professionals a way of influencing how financial institutions fund economic activity and physical development. This could help support disadvantaged sections of the community and failing sectors of the economy with long-term growth prospects.

"This could transcend the expectations of the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration. It had considered integrating these with spatial planning as a means of providing public sector funding and support for projects to equalise the growth potential of different regions of the country."

Summers argues that this could have profound implications for the way planners work with other professionals in tackling economic development in all areas, not just the poor ones. "But how that will work out in practice is one of the great unknowns. Everyone is in freefall at the moment," he admits.

"We need to start preparing to capitalise on opportunities as economies begin to recover. We should establish mechanisms for spatial planning backed by funding arrangements that can be relied on and can be integrated across regions, local authority areas and sub-regions."

So how is spatial planning shaping up amid all this chaos? Summers accepts that in many areas it is "pretty heavy going" for professionals to follow the spirit, never mind the letter, of the 2004 legislation. He recognises serious concerns about meeting the test of soundness for local development frameworks as drafts come under intense scrutiny.

"I am wondering whether lateral thinking and fresh solutions are being squeezed out of the planning process. If so, it is curtailing originality and vision. With the approaching slowdown, we have to look wider than the statutory spatial planner," he maintains.

"Spatial planning is turning out to be much broader and more complicated for the profession than most of us ever imagined. We will need to look not just at the links with economic development but also with communities," he contends.

He highlights the impact of climate change on practice as well. "In situations where global survival is threatened and we need to allow for changes in sea level, we are going to have to redraw the map. That's the most elementary aspect. The consequences of climate change stretching through the global economy and international poverty need to be taken on board."

The RTPI is currently "refreshing" its New Vision for Planning. Its planning policy and practice committee is advocating an "override" on the familiar economic, social and physical elements of sustainable development where global survival is at risk. Summers acknowledges that this is bound to provoke huge debate among all involved in spatial planning.

"It is a proposition that needs to be thoroughly tested. But if some broad agreement emerges on the idea of a climate change override, it will take us another notch away from conventional approaches to spatial planning into a much wider arena," he predicts.


Age: 62

Family: Partner and two grown-up children

Education: First-class honours degree in town and country planning, University of Manchester

Interests: Travel, walking, motorcycling, sailing, music, theatre, earth energies

2008: Independent consultant

1995: Senior consultant, SQW Consulting

1994: Managing consultant, Segal Quince Wicksteed, Latvia

1992: Deputy director, Hertfordshire Development Organisation

1989: Economic consultant, Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council

1981: Regional planner on secondment to SERPLAN

1974: Principal planner, Hertfordshire County Council

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