Storytelling for Planners: Shaping the narrative

I’ve always considered that the role of a planner is to be the storyteller. To develop the narrative, to shape the story and to provide well justified evidence that allows others to determine a satisfying ending. I was struck when researching for this article that unknown to me this is an academic school of thought and that there have been publications on storytelling as a model for planning over three decades. I really like this, and it led me to think about whether this would be a useful approach in helping to promote better governance across all areas of planning and in particular improved collaboration corporately across councils.

Local authority governance and the corporate role of planners within local authorities were common themes at our conference for Heads of Planning and Rising Stars last week, and so it seems timely to consider these types of issues in more detail.

Building on the work of others Tjark Gall and Sindi Haxhija (2020)[1] wrote about two types of storytelling in the context of planning. The first they identify as “linear knowledge transfer” which is described as a transfer of information from planning, or storytelling of planning. The second is “cyclical knowledge mobilisation” which in contrast involves the process of knowledge mobilisation and is focussed on reciprocal exchange with an ambition to encourage co-creation.

As planners, we are sometimes criticised for providing “linear information” where our stories are delivered as information only with little to no opportunity for adaptation. This might be, for example, because parties have developed proposals that are contrary to the development plan. We often hear when working with council’s that there can be tension between planning and other parts of the council that are developing schemes and projects. Planning’s important role as an enabler for development can often be forgotten in a corporate setting and instead perceived as an obstacle to bringing forward corporate projects.

“Cyclical knowledge mobilisation” on the other hand is the type of storytelling where planners are working at their best and this is what should be embedded in good governance. At the heart of this is recognising the range of actors across an organisation and acknowledging that they might not all understand one another’s objectives. The aim is to encourage through organisational story telling greater awareness of each other’s stories and to use them in pursuit of corporate goals and in developing a shared vision.

This is all very lovely in theory but what does it mean in practice? In its simplest form it is creating the right framework and conditions to ensure that there is a forum in which these stories can be shared. Planning is an important statutory function, but it is also a key part of the council that can play a role in helping to shape, enable and bring forward corporate priorities. Critical to this, though, is that it must have a seat at the table. Engaging planning when projects are already well established and designed is not helpful as it becomes much more difficult to narrate a collective outcome and a linear dialogue is more likely to unfold.

My own fixation on good governance stems from years of writing planning briefs on complicated sites which required an organised and persuasive story that was adapted to address different needs and spatial perceptions. Watching these sites come forward for delivery has shown how important a shared narrative was and how positive collaboration (both with the local authority and more widely) alongside planning policy can guide and shape what might have otherwise been considered unacceptable development. Just last week I walked into the former St Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, London and was able to see the restored building in all its glory. It may no longer be in use as a church, in fact it is a street food market, but I took immense pride in knowing that a planning brief I wrote twenty years ago played a part in enabling this important historic building to continue to be used and that public access had been retained. 

More recently my focus has been driven by the work that we have been doing to help councils improve their governance of developer contributions. Working with Inner Circle Consulting we have held workshops with about 30 councils over the last year or so which have involved multi-disciplined officers from across the organisations. The aim of this work has ultimately been to encourage a collaborative approach to allocating and spending developer contributions to ensure the delivery of infrastructure that supports development and is aligned to corporate priorities.

Some of the lessons from our work were shared at our conference last week. The most fundamental messaging, and one that is applicable to all areas of planning, is that for this to be successful and for aspirations to be delivered it requires a corporately endorsed, collaboratively managed and multi-disciplined approach to governance. It is clear from councils that are performing well in this area that this work requires ownership by senior leadership teams as well as strong collaborative working across the organisation. This area of work does not start and stop with planning functions, it requires corporate engagement and leadership – as do most other areas of planning.

Good and effective governance ensures that those who need to be involved are engaged with the entire end to end process. Planning might be able to write the narrative, but the role of the different actors and acknowledging their stories is critical in how this develops. Planners should use their storytelling prowess to raise the profile of this work, communicate shared goals and aspirations and provide a framework in which joint decisions can be made to provide a satisfying end to the story – that is an ending that provides for the delivery of a sustainable future in which people are able to live, work and play.

So, if you have thought about setting up a cross-council infrastructure board or local plans board, or perhaps a forum for consistent engagement with your estates teams and regeneration colleagues go ahead and remember your critical role as the storyteller. It is not always easy! There may be twists and turns or unexpected outcomes, there may be villains and heroes as well as a build-up of tension, but without the collaborative dialogue and the development of shared goals there would only be a linear story with most likely a pre-determined and unsatisfactory ending.

For guidance on improving the governance of developer contributions that includes top tips and best practice that are relevant to all areas of planning please visit the PAS webpages on improving the governance of developer contributions.

[1] Tjark Gall, Sindi Haxhija. Storytelling of and for Planning – Urban Planning through Participatory Narrative-building. Proceedings of the 56th ISOCARP World Planning Congress, International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP), Nov 2020, The Hague, Netherlands.

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