Since the demise of structure plans in 2004 and regional plans in 2011, strategic planning capacity within local authorities has taken a nose-dive.
Since then, the Planning Officers’ Society and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have been highlighting this as a major threat to effective cross-boundary planning. With recent proposals by the government to strengthen the role of joint plans, the dearth of strategic planning expertise has now been exposed and must be addressed. So what are the skills needed to build a new generation of strategic planners?
Try to see the wood for the trees
Different local authorities and strategic stakeholders will have different priorities and will be driven by different incentives. A strategic planner must be able to establish what the area of common ground is and what areas are critical to the successful delivery of long term priorities, building consensus around these. But it is equally important to establish where the areas of disagreement are or where there is no room for compromise. This may change over time as strategic partnerships mature and the context changes, but there is no point in investing significant time and effort into something that is unlikely to change. For those that are working on behalf of a group of partners, e.g. to develop a strategic planning framework or joint plan, the ability to be impartial and independent will help facilitate agreement around the common agenda.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
I often describe my job as ‘marriage guidance counselling’ or ‘relationship management’ and this reflects the fact that there are usually a diverse set of people and organisations involved, as well as different political views. Strategic planning is no longer the domain exclusively of local authorities, with other stakeholders and organisations, such as local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and government agencies, often playing an important part in setting priorities and in delivering these. It is therefore vital that you look at things from the perspective of all partners involved to ensure effective collaboration and to plan for any potential challenges along the way.
Be an effective ringmaster
Strategic planning is not just about setting spatial priorities; these must be properly integrated with wider economic, social and infrastructure priorities. This means that you will have to move from a traditional planning space to one that encompasses a wider range of technical and other issues. However, this does not mean that you need to be a ‘jack of all trades’; you need to have a general awareness of what is going on and who is doing what, and be able to tap into other peoples’ expertise and resources, when necessary. Again, building wide and strong relationships across local authorities and other relevant organisations will be essential for this.
Communication, communication, communication!
Given the diverse range of people you will be working with, good communication will be essential – lose the planning jargon! You must be able to communicate effectively both horizontally across local authority services, and vertically from those at the coal face to the decision-makers of all partner organisations. Given the often politically contentious nature of strategic planning work, it must be communicated in a consistent, open and transparent way across the different organisations involved, leaving no room for partners to feel left out or for any misinterpretation of the messages. Engage the experts; get your communications team involved and prepare a communication strategy as part of your tools for managing the work.
In summary, to be an effective strategic planner, you need to be a good communicator, and have a reasonable level of political astuteness and awareness of a wide range of issues across a multitude of disciplines. All of these are basic requirements of a planner’s skill-set and can be developed with the right support and mentoring.
Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor of the Planning Officers Society