Careers Advice: The importance of economics to the role of planners

Written by: Andrew Lowe
Published on: 26 Nov 2018


Planning consultants have a very wide range of individual specialisms and expertise, which helps to create a dynamic and collaborative environment. All play a key role in planning for successful places.

My own role is usually described as “economics”, which often conjures images of jobs, spending and productivity. While this is not entirely inaccurate, it tells only part of the story as economics actually covers a much broader spectrum.

In simple terms, and in my own experience, it measures the positive impacts of planning on people and places. It often attempts to robustly predict the future, and aims to ensure that planning decisions are based on the best information and evidence that we have available today. This can be used when planning for housing, business space, education, health and much more.

I have spent over five years in this type of role, where I’ve learnt how important this perspective is when tackling some of our biggest planning issues. Housing, for example, is the government’s biggest domestic priority, and is often my own daily priority as I evidence the demographic, economic and market dynamics that combine to generate a need for housing across the UK.

There is much that I have learnt from looking at planning issues from an economics-based perspective. The first relates to the huge amount of information and data that is available to inform the planning process, but often does not. We increasingly live in a world of “big data”, which gives an unprecedented and ever more detailed insight into how people live, work, move and relax. The potential applications for planning are almost limitless, but this information only leads to better planning when we know about it, can access it and then use it in creative and innovative ways. It is important to be aware of new sources of information, and be willing to use it when making decisions or plans.

This data, evidence and insight can also be used to change misconceptions, which often unjustifiably restrict development that is needed. The last “Statistic of the Year” is a fantastic example of this, having shown that only 0.1 per cent of the UK is densely built up. A subsequent survey showed that the public had, on average, estimated this figure to be 47 per cent. The availability and simple communication of this factual information can help to allay fears around planning and development, and may well be a factor which is helping to nationally grow support for new homes.

It is, however, always important to review data with a critical eye, as there are often limitations relating to coverage, sample size or underlying assumptions. The latter have a big impact on projections and forecasts in particular, but can sometimes be questionable or entirely off the mark. A recent example concerns the latest household projections, with the Government itself having now acknowledged how sensitive projections are to influencing factors and the assumptions that are applied. These assumptions risked undermining the laudable and necessary aim of building the homes that are needed across England.

While an examination of the detail aids understanding, it is always crucial to keep sight of the bigger picture. Often, it’s more important to remember the purpose of the planning system from a social and economic perspective, and the strategic objectives of Local Plans or sub-regional strategies. For example, should housing delivery really be lowered because new assumptions have been applied in household projections? Can it really be said with confidence that there is no need to plan for the jobs needed by future generations? Would that not simply become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with adverse consequences?

I’ve come to learn that there are rarely simple questions in the world of planning and economics, yet most of them can be answered in a way that both removes complexity and enhances the robustness and evidential basis of planning decisions. I’m surely not alone in thinking that this is integral to good planning for people and places.

Andrew Lowe is senior planner, economics at consultancy Turley