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Tough times for profession, but plenty of reasons for optimism

LTT’s online discussion last week looked at how transport planners have fared during Covid-19 and the future prospects for the profession. Andrew Forster reports

Andrew Forster
07 August 2020

 aLast week’s LTT discussion on the topic ‘Can we retain the transport planners’ skills after the furlough?’ generated a good mix of views, ranging from gloomy assessments about prospects for new entrants, to optimism about the profession’s role in the new challenges facing society, whether those be repercussions of the pandemic or the equally significant decarbonisation agenda. 

Fred Ewing, a managing consultant from recruitment specialist Meridian Business Support’s transport and infrastructure team, said he knew of many companies that had made redundancies because of the Covid-induced recession. The picture varied depending on specialisms and those worst hit had been infrastructure development planning. Firms were taking different approaches to who they let go, sometimes it was the youngest and he worried that some of them might leave the sector for good, presenting problems for when the market picks up again. 

Stephen Bennett, a director in Arup’s transport consulting team, but speaking in his capacity as chair of the Transport Planning Society, said it was a “really challenging time for the transport planning profession”. “In local authorities, officers have been redeployed to Covid emergency roles or have had to rapidly process new guidance and advice from central government. In the private sector consultants had to cope with major reductions in some areas of work and had to adapt to a much more competitive market. Some areas of work have remained resilient.

“Many larger consultancies have already made cuts to their workforce with many transport planners sadly losing their jobs recently. Others have elected to furlough transport planners through the Government's Coronavirus job retention scheme. But this is reducing its level of support and will close at the end of October. So we could see further cuts to come.” 

Bennett nevertheless thought there grounds for optimism for the next generation of transport planners. “The pandemic has created an opportunity for transport planning, particularly around a sustainable recovery that gets us on the right trajectory for decarbonisation of the transport system. And with the Government likely to invest in transport infrastructure to stimulate the recovery, and with its publication of bold ambitions for active travel, there is and will be a huge need for transport planners and transport planning skills.

“Some of this will be for our traditional skills in things like major scheme development, transport, modelling, assessment, appraisal, and street design, planning for local transport. But we will need to develop skills in new areas. It might be things such as data analytics, carbon assessments, engagement with local communities to deliver some of the active travel changes we want to see, and collaborating with other sectors such as spatial planning, education, and health. 

“So I recognise that many people will be feeling negative at the moment, but I do see the opportunity for transport planners’ skills being invaluable in future.”

Tom van Vuren, technical director of consultant Mott MacDonald, was positive too. “I don’t think that this is the end of the line for transport planning and transport planners and the talent that we’re trying to keep. I think for me, it’s very much about retraining. So it’s for the whole of the profession to look at what skills do we really need. I don’t think that there is an end to the need for good transport planning, what we do is manage change.” 

I recognise that many people will be feeling negative at the moment, but I?do see the opportunity for transport planners’ skills being invaluable in future.
Stephen Bennett, chair of the Transport Planning Society

Jo Thornton, team leader for highways development management at Buckinghamshire Council, was hopeful that any job losses in the private sector might benefit the public sector. “We are hopeful that the recent situation with respect to Covid-19 will highlight the positives that working for a local authority can bring. Where we have previously struggled to recruit senior transport planners for instance, we hope that transport professionals may now be encouraged to consider public sector work if they haven’t already done so before in a location such as ours.”

Michelle Wood, head of technical development at PTRC, said her organisation’s training courses had continuing throughout Covid-19 but were delivered online. “We’ve noticed quite a lot of the attendees are from local authorities, and we are busier than ever because we’ve managed to transfer all our courses online.”   

Andy Costain, business manager for the Transport Planning Society, expressed concern that ‘perfect storm’ was brewing for university transport planning MSc courses. “Last year when we did our survey [of courses[, the key points that came out was the number of UK participants on Masters courses was well down, Europe was well down. And the only redeeming part of the situation was the rest of the world. 

“And I know from talking to the universities, that they are expecting an extremely bleak time, because they expect the UK to diminish further. Brexit is a double whammy, so that [Europe] will be down and the rest of the world on which they relied for, you know, fees and income is going to be seriously impacted.”

Reflecting on the discussion, LTT editorial director Peter Stonham, who played a part in establishing the Transport Planning Society, wondered whether transport planning was still the right job description for many of today’s challenges that affect the sector. “When we set it up, I think there was a clear new professional area that needed to be defined, which was in the shadow of normal town planning and engineering, etc. And at the time, it looked like something you could quite clearly define. I think that’s not the case at all now. Today there have been comments made about the demand for people with the right skills, and the right skills are completely different.

“If we take decarbonisation, climate change, healthy lifestyles, I wouldn’t start with the word transport at all. If you had an appointment in a local authority for someone to get people to live more sustainable lives and healthier lives you wouldn’t start with the words transport planning, you’d start with the words, you know, sustainable lifestyle officer or something.” 

Stephen Bennett disagreed. “I think transport planning will always be there. I think we just ne ed to evolve the definition. And I think we have been doing that.” He said Glenn Lyons of the University of West of England has just completed a review of the Professional Development Scheme and the results will be launched next month.  

Tom van Vuren said: “I think people in transport planning have been waiting for the opportunity to get the recognition that we now see – not just the role of transport in society, but also that it’s not about transport, it’s about people being able to lead their lives and be healthy and be successful and have access to whatever they need, which no longer should be about just the movement of people. 

“I’m not necessarily saying we need to change our job title, but that is what we need to sell to people. So it’s an extremely exciting time to sort of be recognised for what we as transport planners either are doing or what we should be doing.”  

Andrew Forster

Andrew Forster

Andrew Forster

Andrew Forster is editor of Local Transport Today magazine.


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