Comment: Adapting Planners' Professionalism for Inclusive Processes in Neo-Liberal Environments

By Sager, Tore | The Town Planning Review, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Comment: Adapting Planners' Professionalism for Inclusive Processes in Neo-Liberal Environments


Sager, Tore, The Town Planning Review


The papers in this Special Issue of Town Planning Review largely analyse the situation of the British planner. Even so, colleagues in many other countries will recognise the seemingly contradictory aims and the concomitant tensions that are discussed. Some of the tensions are hinted at in the title of this 'Comment': professional expertise is challenged both by the participatory democracy imperative of inclusiveness and by the efficient management imperative of neo-liberalism. The professionalism of spatial planners has to be constructed from elements repeatedly reshaped and reinterpreted in the contested field between two conflicting ideological currents, the neo-liberal current leading society towards individualism, privatisation and markets, and the democratising current emphasising collective effort through participation, trust, collaboration and integration. The long-term need for sustainability and shortterm macroeconomic necessities complicate the picture. Planners' professionalism is in flux, as the battlefront in the ideological war rages backwards and forwards. This flux, and the struggle of a vulnerable profession to keep its head above water when squeezed between strong ideological currents, is the leitmotif of the present collection of papers.

This 'Comment' is structured in relation to the theme of neo-liberalism. It will be strongly indicated that neo-liberalism is not the only complex of ideas to affect British planning, and, that it is surely not an hegemonic influence on planning professionalism. I start with some remarks to the articles dealing with themes that have obvious references to the discourse on neo-liberalism: public/private (Moore) and citizen/customer (Clifford). This is followed by a response to the article discussing the problem of combining performance management and entrepreneurship (Gunn and Vigar), indicating that planning devoted to the first of these aspects of neo-liberalism may have problems realising the second. Finally, I comment on the two articles clearly showing that neo-liberals have not won the struggle for shaping the professionalism of British planners. The quest for trust (Tait) and a New Vision (Inch) points to other forces of influence.

Public/private

Changes along this dimension are directly related to the war of ideas mentioned above, and they affect land use, forms of public-private cooperation and institutional innovations. Neo-liberalism leaves its mark on the city through the many ways public space is transferred to private use. Collaboration in public-private partnerships gives the private sector a more prominent role than before, and there are more private planning initiatives. Planning is itself being privatised to some degree when private consultants do planning work, when private developers take over the plan-making, and when planning-related tasks, such as building control, are outsourced (Hawkesworth and Imrie, 2009).

Even if the public sector is still huge, many agencies have been separated from the big public organisations they used to be parts of. They are now at arm's length from the politicians and are managed like private businesses in nearly every respect. Planners bring along their public sector ethos to a working environment that demands adaptation to the logic and values of private business. This is likely to create tensions (Sager, 2009). As hypothesised in this issue, hybridisation of professional planner identities will emerge.

Citizens/customer

Serving customers is relatively easy in that it is mostly about producing goods and services of a standard that is satisfactory considering the price. Serving citizens is comparatively much more difficult. One must satisfy their preferences as political beings who care about the environmental effects of production, for equity aspects of distribution, and for social consequences of consumption. If planners were to be a profession that provides a service to customers, this would downplay their role in mediation of space and making of place. …

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