What I learned as a non-planner in a room full of planners

Originally published on www.thejournal.ie , April 16, 2017

Housing Minister Simon Coveney addressing the IPI AGM, Westport 2017

Last week I was invited to speak at the Irish Planning Institute AGM in beautiful Westport.  Knowing that IPI membership is made up of planners from the public and private sector, I had to work to keep an open mind and resolved to leave industry prejudices and presumptions on the Dublin side of the M4.

The line-up of talks and case studies, both national and international, introduced concepts worth aspiring to; however, as anyone familiar with these events will know, the magic happens far away from the podium and microphones.

Beneath the shackles of an overly-complex and increasingly-convoluted regulatory framework, beats the collective heart of professional visionaries.  This surprised me but it ought not to have.  The term ‘visionary’ can be thrown around loosely but over the course of two days, I heard proposals for a new-era alternative to sheltered housing for the elderly; a more dignified, socially-inclusive approach to so-called social housing and an ambitious re-imagining of our primary education facilities.  None of these came from the podium.

There can be no doubt  that the profession is attracting the right type of people and, despite it all, these professionals are being retained but they are not untouched by endless public and media cynicism.  It is no secret that local planners encounter NIMBY-ism (not in my back yard).  The reality on the ground is that when local politics are ignored, good projects fail, irrespective of project merit or public need.  While not by design, our planning system has evolved into an opponent driven system and that is simply not helpful. Even I, as a layperson, can identify  the need for planning policies that outlive the political party of the day; the need for less political  interference rather than more; the need for a less complex regulatory system and the need to rebuild trust for more holistic integration of the planning process.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney  addressed the gathering and engaged well, getting stuck in to the heavy issues at hand with characteristic forthrightness.   He confirmed what the majority in the room already believed, that this current system of planning is no longer serving us well.

In an interactive Q&A session that very question was posed ‘Is the current planning system working?’  A cursory show of hands told a tale of failure. Of course, this did open up a debate on what actually constitutes ‘the planning system’ and, following on from that, depending upon your interpretation of what the system is, it begs the follow-on question of who is a part of the planning process. And in getting to the who, I believe we got to the heart of the breakdown, the core concept that is ‘public engagement’.  The State, local authorities and private developers are all speaking to the public and inviting submissions but is that really ‘engagement’?  Is talking to someone, anyone, really the same as listening to them?  From what I can see, the conversation is not taking place where people outside the planning system are.  And I am not convinced that the communication is authentic. Perhaps the more important question is whether public feedback is genuinely sought, welcomed and listened to?  They are all big questions and I am not entirely sure who is in a position to answer them; I cannot.

But I did learn a lot, being a non-planner in a room full  of planners.  I learned that I am an integral part of the planning process, not because  of any special education, training or experience in the construction or property industries, but because I am a member of my community.  Just as you are a part of our planning process, along with our teachers and students, parents and children, workers and non-workers, business leaders and community bodies.  By virtue of the fact that we live in communities, we are part of the planning process that goes into the design of how we live.  So, the choice is ours; how involved do we want to get; are we happy to leave it to our publicly elected representatives or will we take the opportunity to speak up and participate in the public consultation process that is open to everyone.  When we accept that we are all part of the planning process, then suddenly, it is no longer about them, for they are us.  We have a collective responsibility to take part and to help get this right for ourselves and for future generations.  Planners are actively ramping up their public engagement – meaningful engagement; now the public have a duty to join in the conversation as it is only by joining that we can hope to change the conversation.

Carol Tallon

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