Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Trust in Planning Professionals: Understanding the Contested Legitimacy of a Planning Decision

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Trust in Planning Professionals: Understanding the Contested Legitimacy of a Planning Decision

Article excerpt

This paper addresses the issue of trust as it occurs in the 'professional' decision-making spaces of local government. It does so by examining a proposal to develop an inner-city site into housing and the decisions associated with this. Findings reveal that trust is built and destroyed not only through interpersonal relations between actors, but also through institutional considerations which allow for trust to be held in planning systems and in the values of such a system. The role of professionals in negotiating between individual relationships and institutional contexts is crucial to understanding how legitimacy is built in the planning system.

Keywords: trust, professionalism, legitimacy, values, institutions

It is a commonplace observation that planning is a contested societal activity, characterised by fractious processes and disputed outcomes. Mediating the production and reproduction of the built environment involves choices that disadvantage some groups yet bring rich rewards for others. The role of the planner within this process is disputed. For some, the planner is a powerful orchestrator, able to influence and co-ordinate diverse actors, sometimes to good effect. For others, the planner is a marginalised actor, who struggles to create just places in the face of inexorable economic and social forces. However, while much has been written on planners' actions and roles within contentious planning processes, less has been written on how they are trusted to make and enact decisions, or their role and legitimacy in planning processes. This paper seeks to redress this imbalance by investigating both how planners are trusted by others, and how they seek to build trust when making decisions about the built environment.

In the last decade, trust has become an increasingly significant issue in both academic and public debate. In particular, the argument that society in general, and government in particular, are experiencing a crisis of trust has become commonplace (O'Neill, 2002). Critiques of planning have echoed this diagnosis, pointing to a lack of trust in both its processes and rationale, and therefore, by extension, in the profession of planning itself (see Evans, 1993; Davis, 2001; Swain and Tait, 2007). Yet there has been little examination of the way that trust operates in the field of planning, which is curious since it might be argued that planning possesses a distinctive orientation to trust. First, planning is often discussed as an activity that should act in 'the public interest' (Howe, 1992; Campbell and Marshall, 2002), but definitions of this term are often vague or contentious. This absence of a clear fundamental goal leads to ambiguities about the interests that planners serve and concomitant uncertainties about their professional role. Second, in contrast to other public activities such as sanitation engineering, planning outcomes are often diverse and contested. This creates opportunities for mistrustful relationships to emerge, as groups with different interests cannot always come to a compromise; a situation exacerbated by the fact that, unlike medicine or education, planning has no one client group on whose behalf it acts. Consequently, planning professionals may need to build relations of trust with diverse, and often conflicting, groups.

Investigating the way that trust operates in planning allows us to understand the wider relationships of power and legitimacy that permeate the field. Therefore, instead of analysing the generalised lack of trust in planning as a public activity (Pellizoni, 2005; Swain and Tait, 2007; Laurian, 2009) or focusing on trust as an element of collaborative or deliberative processes (Kumar and Paddison, 2000; Laurian, 2007), this paper explores the circumstances in which trust is built or destroyed within 'everyday' planning processes. The aim of the paper is to explore how relationships of trust and distrust are revealed through the interpersonal and institutional processes in which planning decisions are taken. …

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