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Agile Planning

30th June 2014

100 years ago – just as the 1st World War was about to start – the Royal Town Planning Institute was founded. I presume those who set up the RTPI and were involved in its first years may have found themselves rather more preoccupied than they’d expected with the present rather than the future, but optimism and striving for a better future have always been central to the whole concept of planning: no future – no point in making plans!

When the Planning Minister, Nic Boles, addressed last week’s RTPI Centenary Convention, I was surprisingly encouraged by some of the things he said. One comment struck a particularly strong chord: Mr Boles said that “Planning is not about control, but about enabling, creating and planning a future we want to bring about”. I presume thoughts and motivations of that sort must have been pretty much at the forefront of the founders of the RTPI as their country spent the next few years locked in a devastating war on a scale never previously experienced. I guess they must have been even more compelling for the politicians and planners who created the first modern Town & Country Planning Act at then end of the 2nd World War – when creating a very much better future was a top priority.

The Minister went on to explain that recent relaxations of planning controls have been intended to free Planners from the burdens of having to consider planning applications for lots of minor changes that really do not have much impact on neighbours or the environment, so that they can invest their time in helping communities to create effective visions for their future. Now, I suspect there may have been a bit of post-rationalisation going on here – even a bit of spin to soften the audience, perhaps. I know that some of my professional colleagues are treating this all with some scepticism and concern – and they may well be right to do so. However, whatever the reality and the motivation behind the words themselves, I actually believe the principle is right.

The role of Planning – the only legitimate reason for its continuation as an interventionary activity – must be to help envision, work towards and bring about a future that is better than the present. The Planning profession’s activities must focus strongly on managing change – not for the sake of interfering, but to guide change in one direction rather than another; to equip us to adapt to the big changes we shall be experiencing; to be resilient to changes that can devastate; and to make changes that create more benefits and more good than harm, and that increase social, economic and environmental well-being and equity in the way that we use our most basic resource – the space we occupy.

We can contribute to this at any scale: individual, local community, national, global – every plan and every planning intervention should be underpinned by the same ethos. And if we are going to make the contributions that are – or should be – expected of us, in a world in which change is occurring and impacting at an ever-accelerating rate, we need to be planning with care, speed and agility.

One of the concerns voiced repeatedly from some at the RTPI Convention was that Planning is too slow. I agree entirely. A plan prepared without urgency over 5 years or more may be no better than a plan prepared with focused urgency and care in just a year – but the one prepared in the shorter time is likely to be more relevant at the time it emerges. The objective should be to prepare vision-based plans thoroughly but quickly, with the communities they are designed to benefit fully engaged in the process (and definitely not bored or alienated by it), and then to monitor, review and adjust them as a continuous process. A good plan is one that identifies a very clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up. Taking too long to prepare the plan just means that we move forward whilst looking down at the ground: when we encounter obstacles we get knocked off course and then don’t know where to go next.

Perhaps we need to heed Winston Churchill’s view that plans are of little importance, but planning is essential. We need good, visionary plans, but focusing on producing a perfect plan can detract from the continuously adaptive processes of good planning that we really need. The outcomes should always be more important than the outputs.

Steve Kemp, Executive Director

A good plan identifies a clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up.

A good plan identifies a clear destination, maps a route towards it, and then allows that route to be varied as unforeseen obstacles and changes crop up.