Putting your mouth where the money is

This blog is about a new initiative from the senior planning managers at Swindon Borough Council Called “Rising to the Challenge”.  They have rightly appreciated that to meet current challenges in local areas, it’s necessary that more than just the Planners and Economic Development officers understand the advantages of a managed, growing economy alongside all the other challenges of a healthy population and vibrant places.

Swindon Borough Council do have a strong wish to grow their economy.  They were the fastest growing area of the country in the 1970s and then had a bit of a decline in fortunes as the heavy industries that this blue collar town relied on moved away or died.  But now Swindon is back and hungry.

Swindon had an “Open for Business” peer challenge from PAS a couple of years ago.  They say that helped to make the step towards the planning service (officers and members) becoming more aligned to the needs of delivering investment growth through new developments and being responsive to the needs of businesses.  It also helped to foster an appreciation that success was going to be more assured if the development was high quality and aligned to a planned spatial strategy that set a framework for decision making.

The new initiative is to run a series of  seminars called “Rising to the challenge”.  The purpose of the Seminars is to help Swindon grapple with the big planning challenges ahead by getting in leading thinkers / practitioners to speak on the issues to help guide their approach.  Speakers are being brought in from a range of local and national organisations, other towns and other parts of the council.  The audience is as wide as they can manage from councillors, community voices , interest groups and people from a range of council services and public sector bodies and developers.  The seminars are hosted in Swindon’s great Steam Museum – a potent reminder of how heritage can be conserved and turned in the direction of the future – and a venue that made people feel good/valued at having been invited.

I went along to the seminar last week when the topic was  “Delivering Good Growth”.  Speakers included an inspirational talk from Peter Studdart about the Cambridge experience and a pithy talk about where Swindon is among the galaxy of similar (maybe competing) towns in terms of a range of indicators of economic health from Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities. The afternoon sessions looked at working with the LEP and the work going forward in partnership with the HCA on a range of schemes especially delivering the necessary infrastructure for  essential town centre regeneration schemes and the housing urban extension at Wichelstowe (2 of several). The final speaker wrapped up the day with a great talk that pulled together all the threads of activity in their growth strategy, and set them in the context of the aligned local plan, business plan and economic development strategies.

The audience were clearly caught by the ideas judging by the animated discussion that followed.  I didn’t catch any whiff of NIMBYist “alright in principle, but…”.  There was plenty of talk about what was good design in terms of Swindon.

The seminar topics are

  • Good Design (presentations here)
  • Delivering Infrastructure to support growth  (presentations  here)
  • Delivering Good Growth (presentations here)
  • Planning for an ageing population ( seminar 15 December)
  • Planning for a Healthy Swindon
  • Citizen engagement in the Planning of Swindon

This was about a council really taking the time not just to do consultation with their community, but really pulling out the stops to change hearts and minds about attitudes to development – making the situation real, talking about consequences without shroud waving and showcasing the breadth of ambition across the whole local authority area… and it was being lead and coordinated by planners.





Survival skills for planners

I heard Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralization speak earlier this week and while its clearly it’s all change again on Planet Planning, he was enthusiastic (he said) about planners taking on a more facilitative role in making sure that the development  investment delivered the place that communities want.  Unpicking development plans and reinventing them to weight neighbourhood desires more heavily is one thing, but he was also talking about collaborative working between local authorities and communities to enable and encourage development investment in the right stuff to meet the whole range of goals.

He talked about the negativity of adversarial development control  (my words would be squashing the ability of planning to innovate and problem solve) and the need to look at and persuade the community to look at  development differently.   While the Minister wasn’t giving away much detail – I was busy filling in the gaps with a description of development management!

 We have been talking up this approach for three years now.  The supported learning groups that POS have facilitated been wildly encouraged or deeply frustrated at the difficulty of changing attitudes, sometimes in equal measure and sometimes both at the same time.  But over the whole country, I have been interested to know what the pace of change has been. 

 PAS recently commissioned a survey to find out whether Councils had changed their practices to take on development management  ways of working.   DM was never intended to be a one size fits all approach,  but we used a few practices to indicate aspects of a transformation. The result is a half full glass: Continue reading

LDF support for LPAs – now is the time!

The new PAS Self Referral Programme of LDF Support

PAS are making a range of support available to all local planning authorities (LPAs) of England to help them produce their local development frameworks. 

This is a great opportunity for local authorities to get free or least heavily subsidised support, advice or help in challenging areas of producing a LDF.

Why are we doing this?

Continue reading

Planning Skills

[This article was originally printed in Planning Magazine, February 2008]

This month I find myself writing about the shortage of planners, the skills they bring and their contribution to shaping communities. I feel I have been here a number of times before – yet, what has changed since Egan? Yes, there are more planners and planning schools are oversubscribed, planning is again becoming a profession to be proud of, one that young people want to join – all of which is fantastic. But there is still a shortage of the skills that planners have in abundance – or do they?

My view, partial and of the public sector only, is that those skills that planners pride themselves on having – community engagement, strategic thinking, partnership working, negotiation, communication – are actually hard to find. In significant numbers of authorities, planners are struggling to get what they consider to be the ‘day job’ done. The sorts of activities for which these generic skills are required are seen to be an ‘extra’; the additional requests from the corporate centre, a burden; and the work to get the partners to understand what we do is too difficult. It is also clear that planners don’t always know what they don’t know – sometimes thinking they have all the skills they need because they haven’t really understood what the task involves.

But these generic skills are essential to doing the work of spatial planning. This is our job and will be more so into the future. What is considered to be additional to the day job is actually the day job. The need to engage with other people, services, organisations is all part of the work that planners are now required to do. To communicate effectively, to negotiate for the community, to value the contribution of partners is what the work of a spatial planner is about. Along with the planning system the work of the planner has changed – and the skills that go with that are also changing. Planners need to assess their own skills set, work out where there are gaps, find ways of developing themselves. Only by doing this will planners stay relevant and a key contributor to shaping places.

If you would like to contribute to this debate the CLG Select Committee is undertaking an enquiry into planning skills, see: http://www.parliament.uk/clgcom.

The new planning system

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, September 2007]

Through the spatial planning system and the place shaping agenda, planning has been given the tools to help communities achieve their ambitions.

Planners working in partnership with members as community leaders, and local partnerships, are integral to taking these tools and using them to deliver real and lasting change for the communities they serve. No one ever said that this changing role for planners would be easy to achieve. However, the knowledge and skills needed to do this are a vital part of a planner’s training. There is a need for all planners to understand what is meant by spatial planning and place shaping; how this affects the roles of members and officers; and what we all need to do differently to make the change.
From the work we do with those working on spatial planning in councils throughout England, I worry that some of the key messages about the new system have not been heard, or are not being understood.

The basics are:
• This is a different system – do not do what you used to do – it will not work.
• You must work in partnership, internally and externally – to share the load, to work spatially and the deliver the best results for your communities.
• Plans should be shaped by evidence, by all who are interested in the locality and its future and embed the use of sustainability appraisal from the beginning.
• Locally distinctive does not mean each council is different, the evidence will tell you what the issues are for your council – what your place is like.
• You will find issues are spatial and so cross administrative boundaries – work together.
• You do not have the skills to do all this – talk to others internally and externally.
• Delivery means working those who will do the delivering – the development industry and infrastructure providers need to be in from the beginning.

The rewards, both for your local communities and for you personally in grasping the spatial nettle are great; the opportunity is yours for the taking. Good luck.

To find out more about how the services offered by PAS can help, visit http://www.pas.gov.uk