Sustained Solutions

A major study into the skills set needed to build sustainable communities seems likely to have profound implications for training existing and future planners, Ben Kochan discovers.

Five years since the publication of Sir John Egan's report on skills for sustainable communities, which set ambitious learning goals for practitioners, many organisations have yet to develop a learning culture so that they can be achieved.

This is the clear conclusion from a series of studies funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Homes and Communities Agency Academy looking at new ways for built environment professionals to learn in the workplace beyond basic training and continuing professional development (CPD) programmes. The Skills and Knowledge for Sustainable Communities initiative has been co-ordinated by a team of academics led by Dr Robert Rogerson of the University of Strathclyde.

Professor Cecilia Wong of the University of Manchester's school of environment and development is one of the co-ordinators. "Many have interpreted the Egan agenda as a tool box that can be acquired in training, but this is too simplistic," she argues, suggesting that a closer connection is needed between training and practice.

New skills should be shared in workplaces

"When planners come back from a course, they should be in a position to influence their workplace colleagues with their newly acquired skills and knowledge," Wong advises. In her view, this will require a cultural shift in many organisations. It means that leaders and planners need to be open-minded and flexible and must trust their colleagues. Senior and junior staff all need to lunch together and talk to each other, she urges.

Wong also contends that planners need to be more prepared to innovate, take risks and use their powers of analysis. "It is not just about local knowledge. They need to use their critical faculties to decide the best approach for planning an area," she insists. She believes that private sector consultancies have adapted better thanks to their experience of working across many different areas and projects, but admits that the task is a greater challenge for the public sector.

The professional bodies have yet to rise fully to the challenge of promoting organisational methods and ways of learning that nurture generic skills and community empowerment, according to Sarah Sayce from Kingston University's school of surveying and planning. Her study into skills development for built environment professionals reveals little evidence of any explicit inclusion of the generic skills called for in the Egan report into the requirements set by professional bodies.

Sayce is concerned that higher education institution curricula should promote professionals as being able to work constructively with people across different disciplines. Her review identifies areas where the language used in professional education reveals entrenched attitudes. These include prioritising the needs of the commissioning client over those of the wider community and encouraging and assessing communication skills in terms of "presenting to" rather than "engaging with" stakeholders.

Sayce proposes that CPD requirements should recognise skills development in the workplace. At the moment, she maintains, it is "possible for practitioners to remain at the same skills level indefinitely beyond qualification". She urges the professional bodies to assess community engagement skills at the point of entry.

Case studies carried out as part of the research programme point to the need for CPD provision that gives practitioners more opportunities to develop skills in co-operative working. This would take consultation skills beyond the level of presentation to the use of charrettes and other more inclusive approaches.

RTPI head of education and lifelong learning Brian O'Callaghan says the institute is responding to the skills agenda by reviewing its education policy. This will encompass initial professional education, the assessment of professional competence and CPD. A range of factors will be considered including core professional content, relevant generic skills and professional ethics. It will also take on board planners' role in combating global warming, reflected in this summer's Planning to Live with Climate Change initiative (Planning, 12 June, p17). Input will be invited on each of these projects at a later stage.

The RTPI is also developing a programme for pre-professional education. This will develop an educational continuum that allows access to and supports progression into the profession through a number of routes - not just at graduate level. With this in mind, the institute is currently working closely with its sector skills board on an apprenticeship in planning and getting more planning content into the diploma in construction and built environment for 14 to 19-year-olds via additional and specialist learning units.

For Mark Deakin from Napier University's school of the built environment in Edinburgh, planners need to upgrade their skills to engage with communities in a vision that is less utopian and is grounded in their social and material needs. In many cases, he contends, analysis by planners is not sharp enough or is not followed through.

In his view, this requires a new mindset that involves planners getting off the treadmill of bureaucracy and putting themselves closer to the communities where they are seeking to promote regeneration. Planners need to enable them to make their own case for mobilising resources, he believes. These skills are best acquired by learning from what has worked elsewhere, he advises.

On the other hand, there are relatively few examples from which to learn. Deakin's literature review identifies projects in Birmingham, Chicago, Edinburgh and Vancouver. In one example cited, communities stood up against local government and the solution it was seeking to impose. His team is developing a "learning from what works" website that will identify a set of guidelines for professional bodies to refer to when developing "social visioning" exercises.

The new spatial planning environment requires hybrid practitioners and organisational structures that allow them to learn on the job. A study of a growth point initiative in East Devon by Ian Smith from the University of the West of England's school of built and natural environment suggests that management styles need to encourage intuitive learning by individuals by building confidence and allowing them to innovate.

"Senior officers should be supportive and allow their staff to find new ways to approach issues," says Smith. His research points out that participants are frequently unable to allocate time to engage in deliberative reflection. "Practitioners should be allowed time to reflect on what they do," he urges. He also maintains that skills and knowledge should be shared around organisations. There should be frank exchanges of views with other officers and councillors. Senior managers should bring on their staff to avoid a serious loss of experience when they leave.

A study by Ann Hockey and Ian Frame from Anglia Ruskin University's department of built environment involved focus groups and interviews with a range of planning and housing professionals in the East of England. The results highlight a feeling of isolation, reflecting a move away from more socially connected workplaces to a largely isolated and unsupported environment. Pressure on senior staff, who might previously have taken on a mentoring role, allows them little time to pass on their experience.

Study flags virtual learning environments

One solution explored in the study is virtual learning environments that provide flexible, reflective learning that builds on participants' knowledge and experience. Dispersed members of virtual learning communities could work on problems of mutual interest in relevant areas, it suggests. "This should be a managed process that allows the work of participants to be held in a permanent knowledge base," say the authors.

A policy paper bringing together the programme's conclusions compares the acquisition of the skills for sustainable communities to a journey whose purpose "is to grow and develop rather than merely to arrive at a predetermined location". Rogerson comments: "Competencies need to incorporate the ability to reflect and learn in order to move beyond the simpler measurement of retained knowledge or reproduction of particular actions."

Wong accepts that many of the skills required to promote sustainable communities are elusive and hard to nurture in individuals. However, she is optimistic that institutions and employers can help to create a supportive environment in which new relationships are built up between staff. Planners should all be prepared to give time to learn together because in the long term the benefits will be felt in more sustainable communities and greater efficiency.

- Findings from the Skills and Knowledge for Sustainable Communities research programme are available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc

PRACTICE MESSAGES

- Breaking down silos between professions is vitally important for building cohesive communities.

- Greater awareness and support is needed for alternative forms of effective learning that enhance competency beyond recognised skills deficits.

- Enhanced leadership training should recognise and support links between competencies and skills.

- Greater support is needed for developing more opportunities to learn through practice, enhancing the motivation to acquire new skills.

- Planning professionals have a vital role in the move towards "socially inclusive visioning".

- Professional bodies should be encouraged to develop cross-disciplinary continuing professional development.

- Trainers and policy-makers need to create time for learning and dissemination when implementing initiatives.


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