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This chapter explores work in a ‘traditional’ local authority planning department that has sought to retain its in-house specialist staff alongside a long-term reputation for doing ‘good’ planning work. Latterly it has sought to ensure this by instituting a commercialisation agenda that has monetised various aspects of planners’ work. We show how this commercialisation process unfolded and reveal its tensions with planning in the public interest alongside a lack of resistance by planners, despite their identifying with a public-service ethos. The chapter highlights themes such as the public interest, the impact of austerity politics on local authorities and how planning officers work with a local authority’s elected members.

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This chapter sets out the approach taken in the book, arguing for the need to explore the actual, multiple and diverse practices of planning and the similarly diverse working lives of professional planners. It introduces key changes in the environments in which planners work, including privatisation and the growth of private-sector work as well as linked initiatives to bring commercial logics into the realm of planning. It sets out debates on the purpose of planning and the public interest before outlining the ethnographic approach to data collection in the four case-study organisations.

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This chapter follows planners working in a medium-sized planning consultancy. It details the commercial work at the heart of planning systems, including work for private sector clients to promote their developments as well as engagement with more strategic politics and consideration of land and development sites in a particular region. A detailed account of a planning inquiry shows the interactions between planners and other built-environment professionals as well as an asymmetry in resources between private and public sectors. The chapter shows the private sector developing extensive knowledge of regional land markets, local authorities and development cultures. It explores business development practices and networking among private-sector planners, highlighting the existence of communities of practice underpinned by ‘banter’ in which an ‘othering’ of public-sector planners was a prominent feature.

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This chapter explores working life in a large, multi-disciplinary consultancy. It shows how planning consultants work with public-sector clients and on increasingly large and complex projects with many players. The chapter reveals the importance attached to sustaining good working relationships with clients and shows planners reflecting on how their work serves the public interest despite the imperatives of capital. We also explore the high-performance culture in the company and its implications for work-life balance.

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This chapter draws together conclusions from the four ethnographic case studies. It provides answers to key questions, including: How do planners work? With whom do they work? What do they know? And what do planners believe in? This reveals the significance of concepts such as ‘public interest’, but also the tensions that planners find in identifying and attaining them, particularly in a changing professional environment shaped by austerity politics and commercial imperatives. We reflect on the powers that planners have and how they work in different, often conflictual settings. Finally, the chapter reflects on the implications of our findings for wider debates in planning, both in England and elsewhere.

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This chapter explores the work of planners in Southwell, a local authority that has outsourced its planning functions to a large private-sector company. It explores how outsourcing works in the field of planning, revealing a distinct public-private hybrid. It reveals how ‘organisational islands’ contribute to pragmatic decision-making, in contrast to wider ideals of sustainable development. The chapter also shows the long-term significance of workplace culture, looking closely at class, place and gender identity. We reveal how the working practices of planners show similarities with those in other fully public-sector planning departments under austerity politics.

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Exploring Planning Practices and the Public Interest through Workplace Ethnographies

Presenting the complexities of doing planning work, with all its attendant moral and practical dilemmas, this rich ethnographic study analyses how places are made through stories of four diverse public and private sector working environments.

The book provides a unique insight for educators, students and researchers into the everyday lives of planners and those in associated built environment occupations. This exceptional account of the micro-politics of a knowledge-intensive profession also provides an excellent resource for sociologists of contemporary work. The authors use team ethnography to push the methodological frontiers of planning research and to advance organisational ethnography into new areas.

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Everything in life is inextricably interconnected. Yet, there is global dominance of neoliberalism, an ideology that is fundamentally based on disconnection. We are living a contradiction, treading a tightrope between cooperation and competition, trying to reform a worldview that is fundamentally at variance with the wellbeing of humanity and the planet. This is a remarkable moment in history: never before has a political system been this successfully destructive; but never before have the ideas, knowledge and skills to build a world of sustainability, peace and justice been at our fingertips.

Crisis is a chance for change

The choices we have made have consequences that have taken life on Earth into a multiplicity of crises, shunting humanity and the natural world of which it is part to the brink of extinction. Climate change, a coronavirus pandemic, species extinction, rising sea levels, environmental degradation … are not limited by national boundaries, but reminders of our planetary interdependence, our responsibility for the health of each other and the planet. At the same time, White supremacy is expressing itself in a resurgence of a Far-Right politics of disconnection, of individualism, greed, Brexit, the nationalistic building of walls, targeting all those other than the privileged. This intersectional, neoliberal project interweaves in a tapestry of structural discrimination its threads of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, disablism … and a strange hatred of our next generation, the hope for humanity’s future! We have, quite literally, been stitched up!

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The Map is not the Territory. (Bateson, 1972)

We see the world, not as it is but as we are – or as we are conditioned to see it. (Covey, 2004)

We have explored so far two elements of participatory practice that are key to transformative change and, in doing so, we have indicated that neither can achieve that potential without the third element: critical reflection. While we can start to open up the spaces for engagement with story and dialogue, to sow the seeds of individual and collective learning for change, reflection and reflexivity need to be interwoven into those elements to create the fabric of critical knowledge and thoughtful action. This cannot be an added extra but has to be integral to all we do. We can encourage people to tell their stories of lived experience and we can enter into dialogue together about what we hear, but this will remain a surface activity unless we add critical reflection for learning to happen. So, this chapter will explore what we mean by critical reflection and offer some conceptual ideas taken from critical and other theorists to help in the facilitation of critical reflection, particularly concerning power, both for ourselves and others.

At the core is the art of questioning the taken-for-granteds of everyday life and going ever deeper in that exploration through the continual cycling of reflection and action that underpins praxis and is the basis of transformation, encouraging us all to look below the surface and nurture the development of a sense of curiosity about why things are as they are.

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This second edition of our book was written slightly differently from the first. Both are the product of a shared journey, influenced by the experiences of two very different lives. In this, as in the first, edition we have approached the task in the spirit of the book itself, founding our approach on dialogue, on mutuality and respect for each other’s ideas, and on an openness to a dialectical challenge, locating dissent as central to knowledge creation within a frame of ‘connected knowing’ (Belenky et al, 1997). The original book was the product of an organic, transformative process for us, a process that continued afterwards. When we were approached by Policy Press to produce a second edition we were both in very different places, geographically and temporally. This, together with the pandemic during which we were writing, posed a challenge to our previous way of working. The result is a book that reflects our two voices and our experiences since the first edition.

In the book itself, we emphasise the use of story as a way of anchoring the process of change in lived experience. True to this approach, we share aspects of our own stories with you here. A participatory approach calls for us to acknowledge the ways in which our own life experiences have shaped the ideas that we share with you, and these vignettes give you insight into critical moments that have influenced our theory and practice over the years. We met in 1992 and became firm friends, who recognised our shared values long before we recognised shared academic interests.

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