Careers Advice: How greater diversity in leadership can help solve some of planning’s challenges

Written by: Charlotte Morphet
Published on: 12 Aug 2019


In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the business and organisational case for inclusion and diversity, especially at leadership level in many sectors - but not as much within planning. 

The RTPI recently published research called The UK Planning Profession in 2019, which highlighted statistics from the ONS Annual Population Survey (APS) estimating that 41 per cent of UK planners are women and 59 per cent are men. The same APS data estimates that only 3 per cent of UK planners are from BAME ethnic groups, lower than most other built environment professions. And although this data and its analysis is both necessary and interesting, there is still a gaping gap – data on those who fill leadership positions in the profession and wider sector. 

Women in Planning has carried out research that estimates that women only fill 17 per cent of senior positions in planning consultancies with men filling 83 per cent. Similar research has been carried out on RTPI-accredited planning schools. Here, Women in Planning found only 22 per cent of professors were female and 78 per cent were men. 

Research from management consultancies has, however, shown that having a diverse and inclusive leadership is an important factor in increasing diversity and inclusion in organisations and sectors. The research also indicates that increasing diversity at leadership level leads to improvements in attracting new talent, retaining existing talent, improving financial return/ productivity, providing diversity of thought and perspective and assisting in better communication with customers/ clients. In short, increasing diversity at leadership level could contribute to solving some of the challenges the planning sector faces. 

Attracting talent and retaining talent

Management consultancy McKinsey & Company produced a report ‘Delivering through Diversity’ in 2018, which states that more diverse organisations are better able to attract top talent and retain it. The main reason for this trend, according to the research, is that these organisations have broadened their talent pools. Existing employees also see the inclusivity of their organisation as a benefit and a reason to stay. This chimes with my personal experience in local government, which I believe is much more diverse and inclusive in London. Being a Londoner, the office reflects the diversity I grew up with and unfortunately is a stark contrast with my experience in the private sector. 

There are well-known resourcing issues in the planning profession – there is an acute need to retain experienced planners in the profession and sector as well as to attract new ones. 

In attracting new talent into the sector, everyone agrees we need to talk to schools to make it a better-known career option. We also have the apprenticeship to broaden our reach, but it alone is not the silver bullet. There are other things we need to consider – why do surveyors only need to do three years at university to have an accredited course, but planners need four? That extra year of masters is additional cost that means many cannot afford to follow a career in planning. We need to actively seek those that want to study planning but cannot afford it from an earlier age. When this topic was discussed at the recent Planning Officers Society (POS) Conference in Nottingham, many remember schemes that existed to diversify local government planning teams. These old schemes need to be revisited and possibly refreshed and brought back. Those that remember them need to tell others about them. From all accounts they worked, so why reinvent the wheel?

Provided financial performance

The McKinsey research also found that organisations with greater diversity in their leadership improved their financial performance. Where there were more women, it went up by 21 per cent in 2017 and where there was greater ethnic diversity, it went up by 35 per cent - a significant increase. There has been research that has linked financial performance to productivity. Therefore, could having a greater diversity in planning increase productivity of the profession and the sector? 

Thinking differently

Diversity of thought is important. The McKinsey research concluded that it can lead to enhanced decision-making within organisations. Planners have a wide range of challenges to rise to – the housing crisis, climate emergency, ageing population and rise of technology, to name a few. A Forbes Insight Study, Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce, found that diversity in organisations was an important driver of innovation because it provides a range of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds which are crucial to the development of new ideas. Deloitte has also noted in  Diversity's new frontier, that having greater diversity and including more people can prevent group think, and therefore allow for a fuller understanding of risks on projects.   

Better customer and client relations 

The organisations which were the focus of the McKinsey research had a global client base. Some larger consultancies in planning also have this – they work all over the world on international schemes. Being diverse can assist them in understanding a wide range of clients and enhance their relationships with customers. However, most of us don’t work on a big international stage and most of our clients and customers are much more local, but diversity still matters in this context, in building better relations with these clients and customers. Working in diverse local authorities where customers are members of the communities you serve, you are more likely to build trust and have a better understanding of the issues facing the community if your team is more diverse. A recent study by Grosvenor found that only seven per cent of the public trust planners – perhaps this is because we do not reflect the communities we serve? If we were more representative would we have a better and more trusting relationship with communities?

The advantages of greater diversity are clear and becoming more well versed. The RTPI now has a diversity statement and is preparing a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. POS too are preparing an Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. However, it seems to me we still need data on the diversity of our leadership in planning and from that to understand our own unique challenges and opportunities to make change. 

Charlotte Morphet is principal policy planner at the London Borough of Waltham Forest and National Co-Chair of Women in Planning

Pic credit: Nicky Linihan