Dr Niamh Murtagh                            SBE0043

Written evidence from Dr Niamh Murtagh on the topic of the Role of Planning for a Sustainable and Resilient Built Environment


Submitted by Dr Niamh Murtagh (Senior Research Fellow, The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, University College London) based on work conducted in collaboration with Dr Nezhapi-Dellé Odeleye (Course Director for Town Planning, School of Engineering and the Built Environment, Anglia Ruskin University) and Dr Christopher Maidment (Lecturer in Planning, School of Real Estate and Planning, University of Reading).


1. Executive Summary


2. Recommendations



3. Introduction

3.1 I am an academic researcher conducting interdisciplinary research, applying my discipline of environmental psychology to the investigation of the factors which motivate or hinder built environment professionals in behaving in more environmentally-responsible ways. This submission is based on a qualitative research study conducted in 2018 with town planners in the South East, in collaboration with planning specialists now at Anglia Ruskin University and University of Reading.


4. Background

4.1 Climate breakdown is already underway and the level of risk in the UK depends, in part, on how extensively and intensively mitigation and adaptation measures are pursued. A low-carbon and more resilient built environment has a key role to play in reducing vulnerability to risk and improving capacity to recover from flooding, higher temperatures and extreme weather for people, business, infrastructure and buildings. Amongst the range of professionals involved in the delivery of the built environment, town (urban) planners are key. We examined the question of whether planners in England feel a sense of professional responsibility to deliver sustainability and improve resilience to climate breakdown in the built environment.

4.2 Definitions of a sustainable built environment refer to the three dimensions of economy, ecology and society. Resilience as an approach (‘resilience thinking’) recognises the essential interconnectedness of social and ecological systems, and of urban places as dynamic, multi-layered, complex systems. While resilience is seen as a useful concept for climate change adaptation by academics, there is evidence that implementation of resilience thinking is not yet happening in practice. We found no studies prior to our work which had explored, with UK town planners, urban resilience in a comprehensive sense.

4.3 Town planners in England and Wales are employed by Local Authorities. In compliance with national policy, planners gather evidence to develop local policy and manage its introduction, offer guidance on compliance, and provide judgement on applications for development. They typically have ‘delegated powers’ to decide on small developments. However, their work is set within a wider context of local planning committees comprised of elected officials and a planning inspectorate which oversees appeals against planning judgements.

4.4 The role of town planner meets the definition of a profession. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) grants the professional qualification of Chartered Town Planner. To attain this status, planners are required to complete an accredited, planning-related postgraduate degree and to have achieved relevant experience. The RTPI also requires its chartered members to continue to update their knowledge through systematic and recorded Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

4.5 As the professionals who enact the planning regime, through application of national policy, formation of local policy and judgements on development, planners have the potential to be critical agents of sustainability and resilience of the built environment.

Research Method and Participants

4.6 Semi-structured interviews were conducted during 2018 with a total of 19 planners [1,2]. Their experience ranged from 7 to 19 years. All but one worked in local authorities and eight were women. Job titles encompassed Senior Planning Officer or equivalent (4), Principal (5) and Manager (5) as well as employer-specific titles such as Commissioner for Planning. Four participants worked primarily in development management (control), seven worked in policy and six combined both (this categorisation was not applicable for two participants). Interviews lasted approximately 1 hour, were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. The interview schedule included sections on meanings of sustainability and resilience. In qualitative work, the aim is not to provide statistical generalisation but to focus in depth on the participants’ experiences and to hear their insights in their own words. Direct quotations from the participants are in italics below.

5. Findings

5.1 The participants understood sustainability to encompass environment, social and economic aspects and described the challenges in seeking outcomes that satisfied all three dimensions. But there was recognition that a three-way balance was an ideal and in reality, there was strong pressure to achieve housing, or other economic or political targets. These targets, within a planning system in which many other actors hold power, meant that planning decisions do not necessarily meet the aspirational ideal. The planners also noted the complexity of attempting to apply in practice a high-level concept such as sustainability on small projects. There was no evidence that low carbon was a priority.

5.2 The participants questioned the usefulness of the term ‘sustainability’ that has come to be seen as “a form of tokenism…a buzzword”. Another planner explained:

[The word ‘sustainability’ is] so elastic that it can mean anything to anyone… I would never do this, but you could almost write a committee report, or delegate a report sheet or whatever you were doing, and find and replace ‘sustainable’ with ‘good’, and it wouldn’t actually make much difference, because that’s how watered down the definition of sustainable has become”.

5.3 This lack of detail for application in practice and absence of precision in the term was linked to the participants’ view of the core national policy document (National Planning Policy Framework, NPPF) as not useful, despite its stated objective of placing sustainable development as a core construct. The vagueness of critical concepts meant “it’s a lawyer’s dream, because there’s just so much you can interpret and fight the meaning of”. Within a planning regime in which planners’ decisions which are unacceptable to a stakeholder can be challenged in court, this means that the policy is ultimately ineffective because “it lacks teeth, and it means that, I would say, most planners are too scared to really rely on it as something they can resist [a development scheme] on”.

5.4 For the participants who described the NPPF in more positive terms, they used the NPPF to check compliance but relied more heavily on the local plan.

5.5 When asked about the applicability of resilience in their work, there was no initial recognition of the concept by almost half of the participants. While this could mean that the term ‘resilience’, particularly with reference to the changing climate and the built environment, is replaced with other terms in town planning-related discussions, further investigation on the topic found that only one planner was familiar with the holistic concept of interconnected social and ecological systems at city level. Most of the planners discussed policy (both national and local) relating to flooding specifically and some mentioned accessibility of homes, an ageing population, water stress and generalised ability to adapt. Worryingly, one commented: “We don’t yet know what [resilience] means properly…But it’s early days.” There was little evidence of activity relating to resilience in planning work currently. Participants noted the absence of national policy and the corresponding gaps in local plans. Again, the challenge was noted of how to apply an overarching concept such as resilience to a specific development project. Understanding of resilience was markedly different to knowledge of sustainability, which all participants discussed readily with reference to how it was embedded in policy.

5.6 In the UK, there has historically been a wide separation between town planning and health and emergency/disaster preparedness, with national policy being focused on civil emergencies whether arising from accidents, natural hazards or human threats. Although the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004 was meant to re-integrate health and wider concerns back into a new spatial planning approach, it would appear from the evidence here that this has been limited. The approach of ‘resilience thinking’, that is, resilience as a holistic approach and heralded as having the potential for a paradigm shift in planning, was likewise not evident.

5.7 It is possible that planning for climate change resilience may be being conducted within other functions of local authorities such as environmental health or emergency planning, and that there is greater knowledge and understanding in such areas. However, such an approach would indicate an engineering approach to resilience, that is, a reactive approach, planning to protect against change and aimed at returning a system to its original state with greatest efficiency. The potential benefits of an evolutionary approach, of integrating social, ecological and economic outcomes, of developing learning, robustness, innovation and flexibility through proactive planning, are not being pursued. Resilience thinking, of necessity, should involve town planners, given the necessarily future-orientation of local development plans, which typically look 20-25 years ahead.

5.8 Many of the participants showed a personal commitment to protecting the environment. Most described a strong professional and/or personal motivation to work for the public interest and the common good. In discussion of their professional ‘body of knowledge’, the planners argued for the importance of their holistic perspective which integrates knowledge and information across multiple sources and relates solutions to place and over time. Town planners therefore remain crucial assets in progressing towards a sustainable and resilient built environment. But there is urgent need for action by the professional institute, educators and the planners themselves, and for more directive and legally enforceable legislation, to allow town planners to play the role that is needed.


May 2021


6. References

[1] Murtagh, N., Odeleye, N.D. & Maidment, C. (2020) Does the planning system in England deliver a sustainable and resilient built environment? A study of the experience of town planners. In L. Scott, M. Dastbaz & C. Gorse (Eds.) Sustainable Ecological Engineering Design: Selected Proceedings from the International Conference of Sustainable Ecological Engineering Design for Society (SEEDS) 2019. ISBN 978-3-030-44380-1

[2] Murtagh, N., Odeleye, N.D. & Maidment, C. (2019) Identities as enabling conditions of sustainability practices in urban planning: a critical realist exploration with planners in England. Urban Planning. 4(4):86-97. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17645/up.v4i4.2263