World of possibility An interview with Trudi Elliott


Simon Wicks

The RTPI’s chief executive Trudi Elliott tells Simon Wicks how the Habitat III conference has given her a fresh belief in planning’s ability to tackle global challenges

“I don’t really like things being about me,” protests Trudi Elliott. It’s just as well then that the RTPI chief executive and I have met to talk about October’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, which she attended with the RTPI’s president Phil Williams and international officer Marion Frederiksen.

But it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s just reached the end of her fifth year in the job. Moreover, with positive noises about planning coming from the new regime at the Department for Communities and Local Government, there is no lack of RTPI business to chat about, too.

We start with Habitat III, however. As trailed in The Planner in September, this was the third iteration of the United Nations’ conference on housing and sustainable urban development.

The event takes place every 20 years only, and each time reconfigures the international approach to tackling the challenges – and opportunities – presented by human settlements around the world.

At its heart this time is the New Urban Agenda (NUA), a blueprint for sustainable development over the next 20 years agreed by states worldwide. Unlike the Paris climate agreement, however, the NUA is not legally binding, leading to suggestions that Habitat III was little more than a talking shop.

“You would be sitting at something and you might have someone representing slum-dwellers on one side and a tech expert on the other”

If so, with 35,000 attendees from politics, academia, business, the professions, civil society and the media, it was a significant talking shop.

“It was amazing in terms of the scale,” says Elliott. “For someone who’s interested in planning, urbanism and global challenges there were so many things you could go to. What do you pick?”

The biggest “take home”, she says, was the sheer variety of people who attended the conference and took part in myriad side events looking at the issues around urbanisation and sustainable development.

“You would be sitting at something and you might have someone representing slum-dwellers on one side and a tech expert on the other,”
she continues.

Notably, she says, there was significant business presence – a sign that commerce is taking conference themes seriously.

“This was about us collectively looking at global challenges, comparing and contrasting and coming to a shared agenda about what needs to be addressed.”

Collectively, that is, except for a significant missing group – UK politicians. Although the UK was well represented by civil society, academia, professional bodies and private business – including a delegation of civil servants from the Department for International Development – there were no ministers or city mayors that Elliott was aware of. This brings the sole downbeat note from Elliott.

Attendance would have been an excellent chance for senior politicians to promote the UK’s international development and built environment expertise post-Brexit.

Tactfully, she suggests this may be because the event came too soon for the fledgling May government. She also notes a change in attitudes towards planning at the Department of Communities and Local Government under the new regime. 

“It’s always interesting to see what other people are doing. It’s reassuring to note that some of the issues we are grappling with, it’s not just us. We found comparing and contrasting with sister institutions really quite helpful.

“In every session we felt we had something to offer and something to learn. It’s a shame there wasn’t more political engagement,” she says, adding: “We cannot adopt the ‘not invented here’ approach.”

Political Engagement

“We are absolutely clear that the interplay between politics and planning is significant, so we invest quite a lot of time in working with politicians from PIPA (the Politicans in Planning Network),” Elliott stresses. “We support politicians in planning locally and nationally, of all party persuasions.

“There’s a fundamental shift it seems to us since the change of government, particularly around housing and the housing crisis. Government focus is now on homes and not just home ownership.

“I don’t think that reflects a reduction in importance to Government of home ownership, but I think they understand you can’t improve home ownership unless you do something about all tenures. 

“It became apparent at the first meeting we had with [housing and planning minister] Garvin Barwell that they were taking a fresh look and they really think that politically they have got to address the housing challenge.”

Cities for all

So what issues struck Elliott most forcefully? In a world with an expanding population and the greater proportion of people moving to towns and cities, the availability of land in the right places for good quality and affordable development is critical.

“In some places it’s the sheer quantum [of housing required], in some it’s the location. There’s formal settlement versus informal settlement, the community implications of massive redevelopment.”

Then there is the “link between housing and infrastructure, housing and jobs” and the related issues of land and tenure, and what patterns of land ownership mean for land price and assembly. “The land question came up in lots of different ways. In some places the land tenure and land valuation issues were as a big a challenge as planning.”

It’s a worldwide challenge that, Elliott stresses, links to viability and the economic and fiscal models that are used to unlock development. Are they fair? Do they privilege one set of people over another? Who benefits the most from development?

We grapple with these challenges in the UK but, says Elliott, “they manifest themselves in different ways all over the world”. Inspiration comes from seeing how different states try to resolve the conundrum. She was particularly impressed with a scheme on Mexico’s stand.

“Climate change is inextricably linked now to the quality of life issue and resilience. It’s fundamental to how you make places where people want to live”

“They’re doing a really interesting piece of work involving unions, developers, housing associations and the government to provide homes. The fact that unions were involved was interesting – and they’d thought about how you make the financial model stack up for the individual and for the lending organization.”

The threat of climate change was ever-present. “It’s inextricably linked now to the quality of life issue and resilience. It’s fundamental to how you make places where people want to live.

“It’s also about how to prepare for and rebuild communities after disaster, which is why we launched the UK Built Environment Advisory Group with RIBA and the Institution of Structural Engineers at Habitat III, to give built environment support to the humanitarian sector.”

The RTPI also successfully argued for the inclusion of statements about the linked issue of air quality in the final NUA, Elliott points out, adding: “There were things I wasn’t expecting, too. I didn’t expect the gender issue to keep coming up – the issue about how safe women feel in cities.”

Indeed, she suggests, the conference could almost be distilled into the single question: “How do you create a city that works for everybody?”. To answer this means tackling a deep structural issue that afflicts countries around the world, says Elliott. We are trying to resolve 21st century problems with 20th century – even 19th century –governance frameworks.

Above all, the administrative architecture of our societies, including planning systems, needs to be updated to work in tune with the modern world. How do we manage such a transition smoothly and to the benefit of the planet and the widest number of people?

Attracting new planners

It’s a global challenge,” says Trudi Elliott of another theme that emerged from Habitat III.

“People are finding it difficult to recruit. We don’t have brand recognition [as a profession]. That’s why we started our bursaries. Apart from giving a little bit of support to people, it showcases planning as a potential postgraduate career.

“If we are going to meet demand globally we need more people studying undergraduate degrees and more people converting to planning.

The multifaceted nature of planning means that it can be appealing to people from variety of different academic disciplines, she notes. “We’re trying to attract people with a whole range of degrees.

“Economics, for example. Understanding the economic context in which planning operates is one of the elements that you have to demonstrate in the APC (assessment of Professional Competence). You’ve got to understand the context in which you are operating, in the same way you have to understand the environmental and social context.

“We have got much more work to do on creating the narrative that shows the breadth and depth of the work you can do in this sector. We have got to expand the pool of people interested in place-shaping.”

The case for planning

Political and community engagement are critical to enable this evolution to happen, says Elliott. From a planning perspective, she is adamant that the profession needs to sell its benefits more purposefully and coherently, by stressing the value of good strategic planning and by taking ownership of planning’s core principles once again.

“In some places the challenge for planning is that it’s seen as too vested in the past. In others it’s associated with adverse impacts on existing communities. What most of the planning organizations came away with was a renewed sense of purpose about articulating the reach and purpose of planning in creating places.”

Elliott talks about planning not in opposition to markets and commerce, but as a force that can shape markets and make them work more effectively for communities and businesses. The argument has been articulated in two RTPI reports published in 2016 (The Value Of Planning (pdf) and Delivering The Value Of Planning (pdf)), which mark a more dynamic approach from the institute to answering skeptics who blame planning alone for problems associated with the built environment.

“I start from the position of being an optimist and thinking that planning is part of the solution, not part of the problem”

In 2017, Elliott explains, the institute will build on this work by focusing on ‘better planning’ via professional development. There will also be three themes of activity in research, campaigning and lobbying: affordable housing, climate change and making city regions work for all. All, she says, are “underlying themes of Habitat III”.

She adds: “Our wider work is ensuring we have enough skilled planning professionals and wider communities that feel they can understand and engage with planning.”

Which brings us, finally, to Elliott’s own career. A law and economics graduate, she encountered planning as a practicing lawyer. “A really interesting job came up in a local authority doing planning law and it seemed to me about shaping the place rather than just the law. Over the years what becomes more exciting to you, the planning bit or the legal bit?”

There’s a knock at the door. Elliott is late for her next meeting and we have to call it a day. Ironically, it means she has avoided talking about herself. There’s just time for a last word.

“I start from the position of being an optimist and thinking that planning is part of the solution, not the problem. For me, the future must be better for planning. That doesn’t mean we haven’t got to constantly justify our existence and we don’t have massively under-resourced systems everywhere. But things that we have been saying as planners people are now realizing – that we are an answer to grappling with the complexities of today, and of growth.

“We’ve got to engage in the economic debates around it, the social and environmental debates. We can’t just focus on one. We have got to keep telling the story about the excitement of planning and what planning can do.”


There are few things more dangerous to society than those who sincerely believe they have the ability, right, power, and obligation to direct people’s lives. They are the most conceited people you will ever encounter. Once they create a group who support an idea, their next objective is to make it a law. I guess they are unaware of the Banking Cartels objective of eliminating people to preserve resources for their prodigy.


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