Dr Wei Yang's speech at RTPI/BBBBC Living with Beauty Report Roundtable
04 Feb 2020
Speech at RTPI/BBBBC Living with Beauty Report Roundtable.
RTPI Vice President Wei Yang, 4 February 2020
Living with Beauty – promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth, the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, published on 31 Jan 2020.
First of all, I want to congratulate Nicholas Boys-Smith and the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission for publishing the Living with Beauty report, as well as the significant amount of media coverage the report has received since last week.
I find the report is comprehensive and constructive. I am a town planner and urban designer. I am encouraged by the integrated approach and joined-up thinking that the report has articulated.
While I was reading the report, out of curiosity, I did a quick search. In the report, the term ‘planning’ appeared 379 times, outnumbering the term ‘beauty’, which appeared 326 times. The RTPI was also quoted more than any other professional organisation in the report. I think this demonstrates that the planning profession plays a crucial role in making the connections between plan-making and place-making.
I particularly welcome the report’s advocacy of raising the profile and role of planning; the argument for a stronger and more predictable planning system; better resourced planning services; and state-of-the-art capacity building in the built-environment education system, as well as training for professionals and politicians. These echo the pillars in the RTPI’s newly launched Corporate Strategy, and will be our priorities in the next 10 years.
I also think the report gives a fair evaluation of the fundamental reasons why the delivery of quality places has been compromised. The commission’s report pointed out that one of the most consistent themes in the evidence they have received is that planning services are under sharp resource pressure. Local authority planning teams have seen a reduction of 42% in funding over the past decade, with design quality suffering as a result. At the same time, the 5-year housing land supply in local planning authorities currently appears to be at the expense of everything else, including design quality. In addition, the value engineering and risk management prioritised procurement procedures have pushed design quality to the edge.
As I said earlier, the report has received a significant amount of media coverage since last Friday. But, to my surprise, despite the report being constructive and positive about the role of planning, and pointing out the severe challenges that planning professionals face, some of the journalists criticised planners again!
One newspaper said, “planners would want wider streets (for car parking) and a greater distance between houses”. It strikes me how little the general public understands our profession.
This made me think about a comparable public service, the National Health Service. We often listen to people talking about how the NHS needs to be improved, but we rarely hear any direct attack on Doctors and Nurses. So, why Planners? Every General Election, more investment in NHS is always one of the most attractive policies promised by politicians.
The report emphasised an important fact, often overlooked by the general public, that ‘Planning officers represent the community, on whose behalf, they negotiate with the landowner and the developer’. The Planning Service is an essential public service, as important as the National Health Service to our society. I believe that to achieve some of the key recommendations from the report, we need serious investment in planning services, in planners, and more broadly, in the planning profession.
Similar to the argument made by the government’s Agriculture Bill, which values ‘Natural Capital’, I think we need to develop a long-term mechanism to value ‘Social Capital’ in our planning system, and use “public money for public goods” by investing in planning.
We can demonstrate that investing in planning can return dividends, in both economic and social terms. Also, we all know that mistakes, such as ignorance of social integration, disconnection with nature, undefined public realms, poor quality in design and maintenance, and segregated professional disciplines, have profound negative impacts on people’s lives across generations, which cannot simply be fixed by money.
As part of the action plans for the delivery of the Corporate Strategy, the RTPI will act as the leading advocate campaigning for well-resourced, effective planning functions that support the outcomes local communities want to see - safe, resilient, inclusive and beautiful places.
Finally, I want to congratulate the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission once again for producing the report to reflect the powerful cross-sector consensus. We, planners, as well as other built environment professionals, need to be empowered to serve the community we belong to.