Communication drive bids to boost profession's profile as place-makers

Planners in both the public and private sectors can make a key contribution to economic recovery if their central role in creating sustainable communities becomes more widely understood, maintains Martin Willey.

The profession's difficulty in communicating with and improving the lives of Australia's indigenous communities was a primary issue at the Planning Institute of Australia's national congress in Darwin. The government has spent substantial funds supporting the Aborigines, but an elder explained that the convention still did not speak her language.

As a visitor, it reminded me of the UK's collective long-term effort to bring prosperity and equality of opportunity to disadvantaged communities. It also reminded me of our difficulty in persuading the nimbies that housing in sustainable communities is essential and desirable. Good communication is a key skill for the successful delivery of planning objectives.

A recent Local Government Association report criticised poor and indecipherable language used in policy documents. But the solution is not straightforward. Planning is hugely complex, tackling sometimes competing issues. Different audiences require different approaches.

The public, media and decision- makers' perceptions of the profession are important. Contrary to the impression on the BBC's The Planners are Coming, the job does not simply involve local development permissions and disputes. We are concerned about planning for the future and creating places where people wish to live and work.

American Planners Association (APA) chief executive Paul Farmer talked to me about its recent exercise to establish how the profession is perceived. My guess is that a survey is not needed here. We are blamed either for permitting development that people do not want or refusing schemes that are needed.

My discussions with RTPI members, especially young planners, underline the point that the main reason we became planners is to make the world a better place. How can we get that message across?

On my visits to planning schools, I always ask whether there is a communications module in the courses. Increasingly the answer is yes, and preparation for job interviews and presentations add to those skills. As part of continuing professional development, the RTPI's Planning Matters website has some advice on communications strategies.

A new institute initiative seeking to promote the message that planning is more than a collection of projects and processes is an award centred on the regions and nations. This invites members to nominate today's and tomorrow's leaders, with the aim of recognising young planners who have the potential to make a difference.

An enlarged and energetic communications team led by Tino Hernandez is also working on RTPI campaigns to improve the status of planners in local authorities and private practice. High-level meetings between executive board and general assembly members and influential bodies and individuals are looking at how the profession can demonstrate its credentials to bring about change for the better.

It is my belief that up-to-date, community-owned local development frameworks and efficient infrastructure and sustainable development implementation teams both in the public and private sectors can act as catalysts for economic recovery.

We must, however, not forget our long-term stewardship role. In particular, the work on planning for climate change by junior vice-president Richard Summers, the planning, policy and practice committee and RTPI policy director Rynd Smith and his team resonates strongly with the public at large.

At the next general assembly, we will be seeking detailed input to our action plan. Here it is vital that we find a language that everyone can understand and embrace to allow the profession's leadership role and potential to be clearly stated and for beneficial outcomes to emerge.

One of the great strengths of UK planning is that it provides a statutory opportunity for communities to have a say in their future. In addition, planners have a unique opportunity at this difficult time to seek to align the plans and policies of all public service providers in a spatial manner. This work must also be clearly understandable by the public. We must embrace the opportunity with enthusiasm but ensure that everyone comprehends what we are proposing.

- Martin Willey is RTPI president.

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