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Plaudits and problems: planning in the Commonwealth

It was great to see the Commonwealth Association of Planners given the President’s Special Award at the RTPI Awards ceremony in London recently. Retiring RTPI President Ann Skippers emphasised the work CAP does in supporting planners across the Commonwealth. She invited the audience to imagine that they were the only planner working in their office, and then reminded them that in some small Commonwealth states there may only be one planner in the whole country.

The distribution of planners should be seen in relation to need. In very rough terms there are about 18,000 UK-based RTPI members for a UK population of about 60M. That’s one planner per 3,333 people. In Bangladesh, there are roughly 160 professional planners and a population of about 160M. That’s one planner per million. Then you factor in Bangladesh’s vulnerability to flooding and its rapid urbanisation – Dhaka stands between 2 and 13 metres above sea level and is forecast to be home to 20 million people by 2025.

The situation is also difficult in the many small island states in the Commonwealth. The Maldives, for example, has two planners. Its urban population is growing by over 5% a year, but the country has also seen a significant growth as a tourist destination. In addition, as its eye-catching “underwater cabinet meeting” showed, this is a country extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels.

There is not only a quantitative shortfall of planners in much of the rapidly urbanising world, but also questions about the use made of the planners and their skills. This was the theme of Making Planning Work, that CAP produced in 2006: copies available from Annette.odonnell@rtpi.org.uk for £10. To caricature the situation, there are some Commonwealth countries where the planning legislation is a cut-and-paste version of the 1947 Act (or even the 1932 Act); the capital city still uses a masterplan made in 1980 by overseas consultants seeped in modernism, and the planning team of 4 people spends their days in an unwinnable effort of enforcement.  Add complicated traditions of land tenure, political interference and even corruption to the mix and it is easy to see why the potential of strategic planning and the need for urban policy have not been grasped.

Planning education

Where does planning education fit into this picture?  I am currently doing a small survey of the member institutes of CAP about their attitudes to international accreditation of courses. Several Commonwealth countries don’t even have a planning programme on offer at home. In other countries there may be just one planning school. This is the case, for example, in Jamaica, where I used to be the external examiner at the University of Technology which offers an undergraduate planning degree. One striking thing is that the other Caribbean countries don’t send their planners to UTech, or to the post-graduate programme at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Rather they send them for expensive training in the USA or in the UK. In part the reason is because they want the assurance that RTPI (or AICP) accreditation of a course gives.

The RTPI has responded to the demand from non-UK courses for its kitemark. Last year I was part of an Accreditation Board that gave provisional accreditation to a “3+1” undergraduate programme at University of Botswana, and to a 2-year Masters degree in planning at University of Cape Town. Other South African universities are in active discussion with the RTPI, though there is some unease about this amongst the leadership of the South African Institute of Planners. Part of the problem in South Africa was that the statutory registration board for planners went through some serious difficulties about 5 years ago, which disrupted national accreditation. In Botswana, like in many small countries, the professional institute representing planners has waxed and waned over the years, depending on the efforts of a few volunteers, and has been unable to operate an accreditation system.

In circumstances such as these, it is easy to see why there is interest in having some credible international benchmarking and even accreditation. However, this raises many questions. Who pays? How would it work? What criteria are appropriate? It is very much a work in progress.

One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Bainbridge, Chris Poulton. Chris Poulton said: The UK has one planner for every 3,333 people. Bangladesh, one planner per million people http://bit.ly/h7POiG […]

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