Birmingham restores planning pride

Taking a lead in shaping the city's future calls for skills beyond most planners' traditional working experience, Clive Dutton reveals.

Birmingham has the largest local authority planning and regeneration service in the UK. Its team of planners are key participants in multi-disciplinary teams looking at the comprehensive needs of the area and the city as a whole.

When I was appointed director of planning and regeneration in 2005, there was a lack of clear long-term vision for the city. This was essential to provide the context for long-term investment and development that would stimulate regeneration and transformational change.

We commissioned Birmingham's first-ever comprehensive city centre masterplan, which offered a strategy for development that would enhance its role as a globally competitive city. The Big City Plan looks 30 years ahead. It considers the challenge of climate change, demographic change - we will be one of the first "minority majority" cities and are the youngest city by population in Europe - and economic growth. As part of the process, we are engaging with the widest range of local communities. We want to avoid limiting dialogue to just the usual suspects.

A significant challenge has been to attract and retain planners with the appropriate mindset, culture and experience to take on this ambitious agenda. The traditional local authority planner tends to operate in a more one-dimensional way, whereas Birmingham's broad agenda demands planners who are multi-skilled and can work with a range of disciplines in all local authority departments and the communities of interest.

Planners need to be part of a team focusing on the whole agenda, not least the arts, culture, the economy, employment, environment, heritage and housing. In this context we have found it best to grow our own talent pool. We give young planners exceptional responsibilities that would normally only be enjoyed by officers with many years' experience.

We are obviously taking a calculated risk but we provide a supportive environment in which to nurture and nourish the talent of individuals. With these skills, planners become highly marketable and in the past couple of years we have lost 20 staff, mainly to the private sector. However, the current challenging economic conditions could make the private sector less attractive.

The planning profession has been ridiculed over the past couple of decades about mistakes for which it was not necessarily responsible. Planners reacted by marginalising themselves and in many authorities their status has been downgraded. The vital contribution of the council planner in achieving regeneration needs to be recognised, working alongside all the other local players as equal partners.

Finally, valuing the role of private sector partners is vital. As major investors in the city, we have to be fully engaged with them. They require clarity, certainty and consistency. If a proposal is fundamentally right or wrong, the developer needs to be told upfront.

Planners once occupied a central role in the local authority. If they grasp the new agenda and recognise the unfolding opportunities, there is a wide range of fulfilling roles now open to them.

- Clive Dutton is director of planning and regeneration at Birmingham City Council.

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