Working in the public interest? Spatial planning and the future of public service professional labour

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Urban Studies and Planning


This study proposes the first major investigation in the UK into the increasing involvement of private companies in carrying out professional spatial planning work formerly conducted by local government.

In the postwar era, decisions about urban development were justified with the idea that state-employed planners served a unified public interest. As politically-neutral bureaucrats working in government, they stood above particular interests to serve a common good. Although this 'public interest' justification has long been challenged it remains important for professional practice. However, over the last 20 years organisational reforms (intensified by austerity) have seen some planning functions of the state devolved to local communities, while the role of the market has been expanded with the private sector increasingly delivering planning services. Nearly half of all UK Chartered Planners now work for private firms and the Government seeks to extend private sector involvement. Despite this, there has been little research on the effects of privatisation on professionalism and how the public interest is understood in planning.

To fill this gap, we will focus on 3 key areas: 1. The extent and nature of private sector involvement in planning; 2. The implications of this involvement for planners' understanding of their professional role, 3. The consequences of this involvement for traditional justifications of planning activities as in the 'public interest'.

The project will use:
-archival work to trace how 'the public interest' is understood in planning: undertaking a history of the concept in relation to changing public/private arrangements for service delivery
-focus groups, co-produced with the Royal Town Planning Institute, to provide an up-to-date account of the new public and private organisational arrangements for planning in the UK
-biographical interviews, to develop reflective discussion among planning professionals on the way that these new organisational arrangements have changed their understanding and practice relating to professionalism and its role in securing the public interest
-in-depth case studies of the contexts in which private sector professionals work to explore how ideas of 'professionalism' and the 'public interest' are defined and realised through the day-to-day practices and interactions of various professionals, politicians and citizens involved in local planning.

It will answer five research questions:
1. How have the roles of the public and private sectors in delivering public interest planning goals changed over the post-war period?
2. Through what public/private organisational forms is planning now delivered?
3. How have professional planners working in diverse settings adjusted to changing organisational arrangements, what 'professional' work do they do, and how do they define and understand their professional identity?
4. What effects do different organisational configurations have on the ways that planning's contested public interest purposes are defined and realised, particularly in relation to the complexities of place, democracy, and local politics?
5. How can 'public service' professional labour be reimagined as a means of better realising public interest goals, and challenging dominant understandings of what public services can and should legitimately deliver?

As the first empirical study of how privatisation is influencing UK planning, the project will make several ground-breaking contributions to knowledge. It will provide academics with an innovative framework for understanding how these profound changes are reshaping what it means to be a 'professional', and the nature of decision-making in the 'public interest'. Finally, it will generate debate about how professionals might better realise the public interest in the future; highlighting the potentials but also the dangers of the commercialisation of public sector work.

Planned Impact

Ongoing processes of privatisation and outsourcing of formerly public sector responsibilities have been widely experienced over the past 30 years. Within the field of spatial planning, there has been an increasing amount of private sector involvement in local government activities of policy making and managing development, such that now nearly half of all accredited planners in the UK are employed by private companies. This project investigates how this shift affects the work of professional planners, but also has wider concern for other professions and managers in local government.

Who will benefit from this research?
Direct (non-academic) beneficiaries will include:
- Local planning authorities (including both professional planners and local councillors)
- Private providers of planning services
- Professional planning organisations (the Royal Town Planning Institute, Planning Officers' Society)
- Organisations that campaign for the value of public interest spatial planning (Royal Town Planning Institute, Town and Country Planning Association)
- Civic organisations that promote engagement with spatial planning (e.g. Locality, Planning Aid)
- National level policy makers (including DCLG)
- Academics and educators in planning

Indirect beneficiaries will include:
- Local authority leaders and managers
- Local government professional and representative organisations (e.g. Local Government Association, Society of Local Government Chief Executives, CIPFA)
- Trade unions (e.g. Unison)

What will change for these beneficiaries?
Planners working in both the public and private sector will benefit from enhanced understanding of the implications of decisions to reorganise service delivery, and of ways public interest goals can be better defined, realised and promoted within new and changing organisational configurations. Professional planning organisations and organisations that campaign for the value of public interest spatial planning will be given tools to aid understanding of the ways in which planning practices across the public and private sectors achieve public interest goals, providing new means of demonstrating that value as a counter to predominant perceptions that planning is a public policy problem. They will also benefit from a 'State of the Nation' report giving a comprehensive overview of the current models of organisational delivery of public planning in use across the country and a series of 3 guides on reshaping professional practice (covering models of professionalism, acting as a public professional and organising a planning service). Individual planners will benefit from the 3 guides, promoted widely, which set out alternative models of acting professionally within changing organisational contexts. Civic bodies will benefit from enhanced understanding of how they can most effectively influence spatial planning decisions within a changing organisational landscape that has reshaped the relationships through which the public interest is realised. Academics and educators will benefit from empirically-derived insights into professional practice, enabling them to better align teaching to current models of professional practice. Indirect beneficiaries include politicians and senior officials involved in making decisions to reorganise (privatise or outsource) public services, and representatives of other public interest professional and employer organisations. Collectively they will be better able to understand the implications of such decisions, to argue for new ways of understanding and realising the public interest, and to promote new ideas for the future development of professions that seek to serve the public interest.


10 25 50