Working together for better planning

The School hosted a day workshop on 15 January, organised by Dr Dave Webb, focusing on how planning academics and practitioners can work together to respond to the crisis currently facing planning in England.  In this excerpt post he reflects upon discussions that took place.  The full version is available at Planners’ Network UK.

On 15th January 2016, Newcastle University played host to an energetic day of debate, centring on Michael Harris from the RTPI‘s provocations about the current state of academic research on planning and the areas where more work is needed. The essence of Michael’s argument is that planning research has become too closely aligned with qualitative sociological inquiry to the extent that very few scholars would now identify as economists. This was a point he made in July 2015 at the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) conference; one that led to a question being asked of the 200 or so academics who attended the AESOP AGM. Of those, less than a handful admitted to having a full training in economics. This has not always been the case, however, with many planning schools up until the 1970s offering a more balanced range of social and economic training. The question which was raised was therefore about whether we should we restore this balance.

Alex Lord and Simin Davoudi both presented passionate answers to this question. For Alex, one way to challenge those versions of economics which depend on a view of individuals as rational, calculative and self-interested actors is to demonstrate the contribution of alternatives such as behavioural economics (Lord et al, 2015). Simin, however, emphasised the narrowness of all economistic framings, their tendency to privilege axiomatic and reductionist conclusions and the fact that, all too often, government tends to seek instrumental, quantitative evidence once key policy decisions have already been made. Perhaps, then, it is more important that research challenges the values and ideological assumptions which underpin political decisions rather than being confined to a debate about which economic “answer” is the correct one.

I found myself being convinced by all three speakers, perhaps because there can be no clear-cut solution to this question. At the heart of these debates is a judgement about strategy in a context where, as Michael so rightly points out, academic research has been largely ejected from political decision making about planning issues. The idea of trying to re-enter decision making circles by acceding to economic framings of research is tempting for two reasons. The first is the suggestion that, by failing to do so, academics only offer one half of the possible response to neoliberal research and policy: by only challenging these at the level of their discursive construction and social effect we may fail to persuade those who are not amenable to qualitative arguments. Secondly, the issues raised by qualitative accounts may simply be seen as inescapable by those who believe there is no alternative to neoliberal economics. But these compelling arguments for more economic research in planning can be set against a reading of the changing nature of universities which warns of privatisation and of increasing pressure on academic research to be instrumental to the needs, and often the framings, of policy makers. By challenging policy makers “on their own turf” there is a risk of giving up the hard-fought institutional ground on which academic research agendas have traditionally been set….

[Read the rest of this post at Planners Network UK]

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