A few weeks ago, The Fifth Estate covered the burgeoning demand for planners in Australia. As our cities and their populations grow at a rapid pace, it follows that more and more urban planning is required to keep those cities functional and liveable. Concurrently, as the world tries to come to grips with how to tackle climate change, resource dependency and other megatrends, the role of planning in bolstering the resilience and sustainability of our human habitats has become increasingly recognised.
In saying “the role of planning”, what we mean of course is “the role of planners”.
In the built environment in which most of us live, architects design buildings, engineers design infrastructure (bridges, highways, etcetera), and developers construct it all.
There’s also a critical fourth person: someone who can see “the forest for the trees” and make sure that all these things come together logically and harmoniously to form a cohesive, well-functioning whole – and make sure that whole is in the interests of community health and wellbeing, not just the economy or aesthetics.
Unfortunately, here is where we often encounter a problem that should be a cause for concern for the whole profession: a lack of understanding of the extensive and particular skillset needed to perform this work. In other words, the need for planners to do the planning.
Jenny Rudolph, president of the Planning Institute of Australia’s NSW division, says that all too often, smaller development applications (such as those for new houses or smaller buildings that are not exempt and complying development) are being carried out by architects or sometimes land surveyors.
“This frequently leads to problems,” she says, “because architects or surveyors are not equipped to deal with the intricacies and complexities of planning regulations and considerations.”
As an example, Jenny cites a property in her neighbourhood where an architect dealt with the development and failed to consider the full gamut of development standards and legislation, as well as interlinkage with traffic, rubbish removal and managing of underground infrastructure such as electricity cables and gas pipes. The end result was a re-exhibition of the development, delays and further changes to plans. Eventually a planner was called in to integrate all these aspects, liaise with the council and enable the development to progress.
Similarly, surveyors are often recruited in place of planners to deliver Statement of Environment Effects (SEEs), particularly for subdivisions. SEEs are vital documents for the practice of land use planning, which, if ill-conceived, can have disastrous outcomes with impacts lasting for years if not decades. An example may be when a subdivision has failed to consider a portion of a closed crown road, thus impacting the layout and minimum lot sizes, or non-compliance with waste removal requirements.
These stories are the direct product of an unfortunate trend growing alongside the demand for planning work – the recruitment of non-planners to carry out this work. The occasional small-fry case of an architect, surveyor or engineer being tasked with a planning job is perhaps no cause for outcry, despite the headaches it can create for the stakeholders of those particular cases. But the problem goes all the way to the top.
The planning departments of some of Australia’s biggest state governments have been known to hire non-planners to manage planning work. In one state last year, the department advertised a senior policy role focused on climate change adaptation and land use planning, which expressed preference for an “economics and/or law background.” Conversely, at the local government level, a council in the same state advertised a “director, city planning” role that indicated “relevant tertiary qualifications in planning are not essential”.
“To be fair, it’s not unheard of for high-level positions to place more weight on leadership ability than technical knowledge,” PIA executive officer for WA and SA Emma de Jager says.
“But if you’ve got actual planners reporting to you, if their roles revolve around planning and the buck for those planning outcomes stops with you then you really ought to possess a thorough knowledge of planning. Planning is much more than pretty parks and pedestrianised streets. It requires a comprehensive, up-to-date knowledge of legislation, planning frameworks, various technologies, as well as the ability to analyse and factor in all sorts of considerations from public health to environmental hazard mitigation.”
Laura Murray, president of PIA Victoria, agrees.
“I started my career in the UK as a chartered member of the Royal Town Planning Institute. There, a planning qualification and chartered membership (MRTPI) to the UK Institute are essential for any job in town planning; and MRTPI accreditation is also a requirement by most councils and consultancies if you want to progress in your career beyond senior planner level.”
Now based in Melbourne, Laura finds the contrast in the standing of the profession in Australia quite striking.
“I find it extremely surprising that we work in an industry in Victoria / Australia where not all employees or planners themselves understand the importance and benefits of being a fully qualified planner, members of PIA or obtaining registered planner accreditation.”
Conversely, the UK Royal Town Planning Institute’s website explicitly informs Australians that “if you intend to make your career here, it would generally be expected that you would work towards Institute membership in due course, and you may want to invest in an accredited masters course which opens the door to full chartered town planner status”.
“You will notice that in job advertisements for more senior positions, membership of the appropriate professional institute is often mentioned as a requirement.”
A cursory read through UK-based planning job advertisements backs this up. For example, a planning director in London must demonstrate, above all, an “RTPI accredited degree” and “MRTPI (essential)”.
“That’s the way it should be,” de Jager says. “I mean, you wouldn’t hire a planner or architect to draw up the plans for a new suspension bridge – you’d be sure to get a qualified engineer.
“Likewise, if you’re going to build a suspension bridge, there’s only one professional that knows how to properly research the area, engage with local community members and stakeholders, advise on what should go underneath and around that bridge, how this new transport corridor relates to the broader neighbourhood and city, and what additional value can be captured from the development. That professional is a planner and only a planner.”
Catherine McNaughton, a long-time member of PIA, and Women’s Planning Network Achiever of the Year, claims the problem stems partly from a lack of flexibility by planning employers. She is one of numerous Australian planners who, for family reasons, has had a break in her career – and is now finding it tough to get back into the workforce in a way that allows her to also maintain her commitments as a mother.
“Frankly, I’m disheartened by planning employers for being so narrow,” she says. “I’m highly experienced, I’ve got multiple award-winning projects under my belt, yet the moment you mention you can only work part-time, the interview’s pretty much over.”
McNaughton says that seeing councils accept less experienced or qualified planners into full-time planning roles, rather than adjusting or splitting those roles to accommodate the best candidate, is not only a blow to her self-esteem but to the value of the profession as a whole.
Significant barriers to employment also face planners from interstate and overseas, in the form of preferences for staff with local planning experience.
“This denies planning a wider range of planning skills, ideas, experiences and our planning employment reflecting the demographic mix of our community,” McNaughton says.
De Jager hopes the Planning Institute’s Registered Planner initiative, launched to its membership earlier this year, will change this around.
“Registered planners are planners who have demonstrated their competencies via assessment by the Institute,” de Jager says. “There are already some 380 around Australia with plenty more coming through, and at PIA we’re strongly advocating that these are the people employers and clients should look to to carry out urban and regional planning. If you’re not hiring a registered planner – well, just how serious are you about getting a reliable and high-quality planning outcome?”
It echoes comments by PIA’s national president, Brendan Nelson, in an interview on Sky News Real Estate in May this year. The interview focussed on the value of engaging planners as a new homeowner to avoid frustration and feuds with council and/or neighbours down the track. Brendan acknowledged that Australian planning rules and regulations are both stringent and complex, and for this reason the expertise of a planner cannot be substituted.
“We live in some of the most liveable cities in the world,” he concluded, “and they’re liveable for a reason – because we’ve had good planning.”
David Williams is chief executive of the Planning Institute of Australia.