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.

Advertisement

Return to Work – Planning Class of 2021

Reflections of Anna Rose and Rachael Ferry-Jones, Planning Advisory Service

In March 2021 we at PAS were privileged to hold the graduation for all those who took part in the Class of 2021 “Return to work – Planning” (RTWP) programme. This was an intense six-week training programme aimed at supporting individuals to return to work in a planning environment within a Council. The programme was designed to build on the success of the “Return to Social Work” programme ran by the Local Government Association (LGA) in partnership with central government and funded by the Government Equalities Office.

The programme was in the making for a few years. The concept was driven from a resourcing crisis in local government at a time when Councils could not find planners to apply for jobs. The answer was to run a return to work programme, similar to the then existing programme for social work. As part of the LGA we were asked to design and deliver the training for this programme. 

Research had told us that the resourcing crisis in Council planning services was more nuanced than there just not being enough planners. Councils needed people with experience. It also wasn’t necessarily the case that planners had left Councils and now wished to return. The bigger issue we found was that planners were leaving the public sector to move to the private sector or changing their career completely. The challenge to make this programme fit the needs of the sector appeared at times extremely difficult.  

The COVID19 pandemic changed everything, for everyone. In planning, there was more jeopardy in the private sector where we saw a pattern of furlough followed by redundancy. This coincided with a renewed interest in planning in the public interest. Over the last 12-18 months we have seen a greater interest in public sector planning.

There has also been a series of changes and proposed changes to the planning system. Council planning teams require knowledge and experience of environment, transport, infrastructure, heritage, design and engagement. We all need to understand the system that we work within but more importantly how these different disciplines need to come together to deliver a shared vision and to create places where people want to live, work and play.  

The learners on the 2021 RTWP programme have an exciting and diverse mix of work experience including town planning overseas, environmental management, strategic infrastructure, architecture and transport. It was our mission to design a training programme that covered all areas of the planning system providing learners with a practical insight in to working in Town Planning in England today and into the future. With the help and thanks to industry experts[i] we delivered a modular based programme and the feedback tells us that we were successful in our mission.

Over the weeks of training the RTWP Class of 2021 were able to understand the interdependencies of our complex planning system. The course helped to illustrate how the seemingly unrelated parts of the planning system rely on the success of the others. Critically, we were able to show that there is room and demand for the experiences of the individuals and help them to understand where their skills might fit into the system.

We had no idea how this programme was going to work when we agreed to provide the training element. We trusted in our knowledge of Councils and how they operate. We designed the programme very much from what we felt we would need to know if we were applying for Local Planning Authority jobs right now. What the programme taught us though was that there are inherent barriers in our recruitment processes that can limit opportunities for people who do not have the direct experience, or the accredited degree. Yet often individuals can have a wealth of experience and transferable skills that would fundamentally complement and enhance any planning team. This programme has certainly put the fire in our bellies to try and help improve the recruitment procedures of Councils.

The RTWP Class of 2021 were exceptional. They were fully engaged in the programme always offering insightful, skilled and collaborative contributions. It was an absolute privilege to work with them. They showed us that getting a wider range of experiences into our planning system would not only make it work better but would help change the way in which it works. 

To the RTWP Class of 2021 thank you. You have impressed us, not just at PAS but all of the trainers too. We wish you all the very best of luck in your new and future roles and we know that you will make a real difference to the areas you plan. And don’t forget to stay in touch!


[i] With special thanks to the Royal Town Planning Institute for working in partnership with us to deliver this programme and to all of our trainers including MHCLG, Natural England, London Borough of Brent, Greater Norwich Partnership, Hertfordshire County Council, West Suffolk Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Shahilla Barok, Jeanette James, Citiesmode, Land Use Consultants, Raymond Crawford, Civic Voice, Dentons, Gilian Macinnes Associates, Urban Design Learning and Public Practice.  

“Planning for the Future” consultation events – What we saw and heard

This post is written in thanks and reflection to all the officers who attended our recent consultation events with the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on the Planning for the Future White Paper.

Getting together in virtual “zoom” to listen, discuss, feedback and debate is fast becoming the new norm. Whilst we most certainly missed seeing you in person, and having multiple chats over lunch, we were mighty impressed with the level of engagement that you brought to these sessions. And for this we would like to say a very big thank you on behalf of both us at PAS and MHCLG.

The sessions were a safe place for you to talk openly about the proposals as individual practitioners, as well as on behalf of your councils. This intelligence and feedback to Government is hugely valuable and your thoughts, ideas, questions and concerns were captured from all the sessions. What we saw and heard will be important considerations for Government as they now reflect on how they will take proposals forward.  

The sessions really benefited from the fact that colleagues from across the country could meet to discuss their different issues. We can often be preconditioned to think that events have maximum benefit when we stick together in regions because experiences and challenges are similar. Whilst this has undeniable benefit, hearing about different challenges and practices from across the country enables us to think differently about what appropriate responses in our own areas might be. Afterall, no 2 councils are alike even if they are next door to one another. It also allows us to think about the proposals more holistically as a national planning system needs to work everywhere.

What was surprising was that even though we were in our virtual room together there was very little mention of the global Coronavirus “C19” pandemic. The current limitations on movement and functioning use of place(s) we all hope will be temporary. But what will the experiences of 2020 mean for how we plan for the future? What evidence will we need? what type of homes will people want? how will we go to work? how we will move around? what infrastructure will communities need? and importantly how we will support economic development? Of course, none of us have the answers right now but we will all need to think about this in Planning for the Future. Planning as a profession will become ever more important in the recovery from the pandemic.

Back to the White Paper, we thought it would be helpful to summarise some of the key messages that you told us during the events. As we said on the day, nothing that we heard is attributable, and who said what will remain confidential. We recognise that many of you have concerns about the transition arrangements into a new system and importantly what the timetable for that transition will be. Many of you told us that until you understand your areas housing requirements it is difficult both practically, and politically, to move forward with your plan making. Some of you see proposals as a radical overhaul of the system, while others consider them to be reflective of much of what you can already do. A favourite of mine was the recognition that there could be a role for new style development or planning briefs – I was brought up on these as a young planner with a fantastic teacher and am a huge advocate of their collaborative approach and most importantly what they can deliver.  

For a more detailed summary of what you told us please do head over to our website  

Infrastructure Delivery Plans: What if they actually delivered?

Last week I tuned in to the RTPI’s #Plantalk session with Sara Dilmamode, Director of Citiesmode, on infrastructure delivery plans. In the title of her presentation Sara raised a fundamental question that I think on reflection will resonate with many, that is “Infrastructure delivery plans: What if they actually delivered?”.

Sara and I have worked together recently on the development of the PAS advice note “Start with the spend in mind”. This is aimed at helping local authority senior leadership teams to understand the role(s) of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and Section 106 Planning Obligations (S106). At the heart of this advice note is the push for the recognition that local authorities have a fundamental role in leading from the front the coordination and delivery of infrastructure to support their areas. This will of course become ever more important as we reflect and plan for the impacts of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in terms of how we continue to shape the places within which we live and work and what demands this places on existing, or the need for new, infrastructure.

Effective infrastructure planning, prioritisation and importantly the governance of spend are critical to supporting our communities and the delivery of sustainable development and growth. Like many things in the planning system infrastructure planning is continually evolving and it is imperative that this is reflected in an authority’s governance process. Developing Infrastructure delivery Plans (IDPs) as static evidence documents to support a local plan at a fixed point in time with no commitment to a periodic, and of course proportionate, update can render such documents in the longer term purposeless. IDPs often take the form of long wish lists that can become out of date very quickly and which fail to provide any form of prioritisation for bringing forward the infrastructure that is required to support the delivery of
the local plan.

Kept alive and up to date IDPs do have the ability to help an authority to prioritise and deliver the infrastructure that is required to support its area. But this needs to be a coordinated approach by an authority with strong leadership, clear processes, effective governance and a continual dialogue with infrastructure providers and users. There is immense value in getting people around a table and this is the number one lesson that I learned from my former boss, Graham King, when working on the redevelopment of Paddington Basin and the delivery of critical infrastructure back in the naughties.

There is other good practice out there, including Greater Norwich and Chichester District Council who are mentioned in the #Plantalk session and the PAS advice note. Their commitment to clear governance processes is enabling the delivery of infrastructure through the effective spend of developer contributions and other funding sources.

The requirement to produce an Infrastructure Funding Statement (IFS) by the end of this year should not be approached with trepidation. Whilst there will inevitably be for some authorities hard work to be undertaken to bring together the required information, an IFS offers the opportunity to showcase effective governance of developer contributions, infrastructure delivery and consensus for future priorities.

I would urge you and your leadership teams to watch the RTPI’s #Plantalk session with Sara and read our advice note “Start with the spend in mind”and raise the profile of this incredibly important area of work within your authority.

Planner or non-planner – did it make a difference to the takeaways from the Chief Planners event?

Reflecting on our Chief Planners event held over 2 days in Birmingham in March our newest Member of the PAS team Principal Consultant Nicola Sworowski and our newly wed Programme Support Officer Annie Jones share their thoughts on the event. Is a planner and non-planners view that different?

Nicola Sworowski, Principal Consultant

The conference fell in my 8th week at PAS which for me was great – time to network with Heads of Planning from across the country but also to spend some time with my newish colleagues.

On the first day I received a picture from a friend who likes to show me how great retirement is – the picture was of her dog, Onyx, in Yorkshire enjoying a walk through the trees with a fantastic blue sky.  I replied with a picture of my view to which she replied ‘it looks a bit grey’ which was a reference to clothes and not hair colour! I saw her a few days later and she asked how my ‘grey day’ was and to her surprise I said it was very enjoyable and an interesting way to spend a couple of days.

It was great that the conference was so well attended and there was a fantastic range of speakers across a wide range of planning related topics.  I took something away from all the presentations.  It was great for me to have interaction with the Heads of Planning and to hear their questions and equally their concerns, as PAS may be able to help with some of them.

I have heard it several times before but I enjoy hearing the stat that only 11% of land in this country is developed – I would love to do a public poll on what people thought that number was as I suspect people would guess much higher.

I added to my reading list, the book called The Happy City and the Welsh Government Plan though I haven’t yet started either!  I continue to be intrigued about the concept of putting a monetary value on social value and considering wider than job training and local supply chains following my initial chat with Mark Dickens about this and look forward to watching this progress.

For me as a Planner, it is always great to hear the Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain speak, but my favourite part is completely unrelated to Planning but instead was when one of my colleague’s referred to himself as the poster boy of HDT!  Says nothing about me as a Planner, just as a person!

Hopefully, next time I take a picture at the conference it will have a bit more colour although I am not sure what is wrong with grey!

Annie Jones, Programme Support Officer

I joined the PAS team last summer as the programme support officer, and up until that point my understanding of planning was limited to basement and house extensions! I now know there is a lot more to it!

My role in these events is to organise the venue, accommodation, and general logistics. Everything from creating the event on the Eventbrite, to making sure that the venue has everyone’s dietary requirements. I’ve arranged a number of events since joining PAS, however this was the first overnight conference and there is always a concern that something may go wrong! Thankfully everything ran smoothly and any mishaps that did occur were minor and easily sorted with the venue. Everyone had a room to sleep in and food throughout!

My knowledge of planning has certainly expanded in a short space of time, I still feel there is a lot more for me to learn, and so I was somewhat nervous that the two days at our Chief Planners Conference would go over my head. Whilst I can’t say that I understood everything that was discussed, I did feel like I was able to keep up with the conversation.

Once I sat down on Thursday morning, I looked around the room and had a thought that these are the people who are creating and developing the country’s towns and cities for the future. As a non-planner, the planning sector can sometimes be seen as unsympathetic to the changes. However, hearing through-out the conference the many people referring to the reason that they got into planning was to make good places dispelled this view and made me realise that the objectives of planners and planning is to create happy and healthy communities.

The PAS team have really encouraged me to develop my understanding of planning, and I can honestly say that I am thoroughly enjoying it.. As part of my development, I would love to spend the day shadowing a planning officer. If you are able to have me for the day, please email annie.jones@local.gov.uk.

I look forward to seeing you all at the next PAS event!