What Must Planners Do Differently?

Working in the Public Interest?
What must planners do differently?

Critical thoughts on the state of planning


Streets in the Sky, Park Hill, Sheffield.
Streets in the Sky, Park Hill, Sheffield. Photo reference courtesy of the JR James Archive.

The current moment is generating huge challenges and raising significant questions about how our societies operate and the future of our cities and countryside. Economic shutdowns are bringing structural inequalities into sharp relief even as they illustrate the daunting scale of the transformations required to reduce our environmental impacts. Many pieces have already been written about how we might not just adapt to a post-Covid world but take the opportunity to build better, healthier, fairer, greener cities. Any hopes for significant change would entail fundamental shifts in the role of planning.

At the same time, however, powerful property lobbies threaten a return to a business-as-usual model of development that is led not by care for people and place but the greedy hand of an ever less fettered free market. In England, this is symbolised by a new Conservative government promising to yet again radically streamline a planning system it sees as an impediment to economic recovery.

Current circumstances also therefore challenge us to think more broadly about what planning and being a planner really mean in 2020. What is the purpose of planning? Do planners have the tools, resources, and capabilities to address significant societal challenges, and are they trusted to do so? What role should public authorities have and how might this interface with the logics of the market and private-sector driven development? And finally, what is the ‘public interest’ that planners often invoke as the foundation for their work, and how might it be compromised by the nature of the systems we operate in and where we work?

The ESRC-funded Working in the Public Interest Project has been seeking answers to these questions over the past three years. The project team from the University of Sheffield, Newcastle University and University College London has been engaging closely with contemporary planning practice in both the public and private sectors, focusing attention on what planners do all day. In depth interviews, focus groups to discuss contemporary challenges in planning, and extensive and engaged ethnography have yielded a rich set of insights into the state of planning and the nature of contemporary planning work across the UK.

In this booklet we offer a series of brief overviews of key themes that this research has highlighted. Our aim here is not to offer a definition or detailed theoretical discussion of the public interest. Instead we hope to explore how various different facets of planning work are changing. At a broad level our argument is that a much wider range of issues and practices, including for example work-life balance and organisational change, need to be considered alongside issues such as professionalism and ethics when thinking about what it means to work in the public interest.

In doing so we hope to stimulate broader debate within and beyond the planning profession about the nature and value of planning. We also aim to highlight a series of key questions and challenges that are shaping planners’ work and that will have significant implications for the future.