Planning Careers: Specialisation - Choosing the right path

Published on: 19 Nov 2013

The role of a planner has expanded and diversified over the years in tandem with the increasing complexity of policy and regulation, and there are now opportunities to specialise in different areas of the sector.

Planning spoke to recent graduates who have specialised to find out what their job entails, what attracted them to their role and what helped them to obtain it. All cite the importance of work placements in helping identify the area they are most interested in and ultimately giving them the knowledge and confidence to get a job in their chosen area.

An undergraduate planning qualification is often just the first step along a planner's career path. To obtain jobs in more specialist areas, many students now go on to study a Masters in subjects such as transport planning, urban design and even marine spatial planning - our directory of courses details these opportunities, see page 22.


Ed Holden (27) Sustainable transport planner, St Helens Council

BA (Hons) in international development and Master of Civic Design, University of Liverpool, 2007-11

Ed Holden (left, in orange) entered the job market just as sustainable transport planning was taking off. The government's Local Sustainable Transport Fund launched in 2011 and St Helens Council in Merseyside created a new role in the discipline in the following year. Holden was on work experience as a planning examinations support officer at the council when the sustainable transport role came up.

So far, he has worked on converting a disused railway into a cycle path and helped with an electric vehicle charging strategy for Merseyside. The first application he took up on his own was for a cycle path in an industrial estate. "We see the results of our efforts fairly quickly with sustainable transport," he says.

Public sector work has one drawback for him: bureaucracy. "It means there's a level of accountability but it requires time and perseverance," he says. But he enjoys the collaborative nature of the work: his projects involve talking to a range of people. Holden sees himself in sustainable transport for a while. "Government has made it clear that it will remain on the agenda," he says.

Holden gained his undergraduate degree in international development and a masters in civic design at Liverpool University. He learnt about electric vehicles and transport infrastructure, and his interest in transport stems from there. He also studied climate change and renewable energy, so a job in sustainable transport was naturally a draw.

The civic design course is RTPI-accredited and he believes this helped him land the job, even though it wasn't a requirement. Holden says he has heard that an RTPI-accredited qualification is becoming a minimum requirement for some local authorities for planning jobs. He is now completing the RTPI's Assessment of Professional Competence. "It requires a lot of hours outside work, but it helps long-term career progression," he says.


Alastair Thornton (29) Associate at Simply Planning

BSc City and Regional Planning at Cardiff University (2002 - 2005), MSc Regeneration Studies (2006 - 2007), Cardiff University

Alastair Thornton developed his interest in retail planning at Cardiff University, where he studied it as a module on his degree course. He then worked at consultancy RPS on a sandwich year where he was involved in several supermarket schemes.

Retail development also formed a key component of Thornton's masters course in regeneration. During a stint at Walsall Council, Thornton gained experience in regeneration-led retail schemes aimed at local job creation.

He put the experience to use in launching retail planning consultancy Simply Planning last year. He believes softer skills, such as the ability to get on with people, are just as important as work experience.

Thornton manages a portfolio of retail and mixed-use planning work for clients all over the UK. His work includes retail impact assessments and preparing and submitting planning applications and appeals. He is also involved in business development, he says.

The retail sector appeals to Thornton because of its constantly changing nature. Keeping up to date with trends in retail and using this knowledge in planning projects is important, he says. "Internet shopping has changed retailers' offer - they don't necessarily need the size of store they used to," he notes.


Clive Theobald (53) Planning officer, Uttlesford District Council

BA (Hons) in urban and environmental planning, 2004-08, and postgraduate diploma in town planning, London South Bank University, 2008-10

Clive Theobald was in planning enforcement for 20 years before he undertook a degree as part of Uttlesford's training programme. As a planning development management officer for the council, he now deals with planning appeals, enquiries and applications, and also presents to committee. Theobald sought a new challenge in planning. "Enforcement was good, but I'd come to the end of a rewarding career there," he says. The change was possible thanks to the council's in-house training budget. Theobald believes his university studies prepared him well for writing case reports: "Accumulating information and putting it into a coherent report - I think a mixture of academic rigour and knowledge is required for that," he says.


Ellie White (24) Planner, McLaren Clark Group

MPlan in planning, housing and market renewal, University of the West of England, 2007-11

Ellie White has been a planner at consultancy McLaren Clark Group for just over a year. The company works principally with housing developments and tasks can range from pre-application appraisals to public consultation.

White joined the firm after deciding that she did not want to use her skills in a big corporation. The small staff of four, two of whom are planners, appealed to her. Each person works on a different aspect of each project. "I knew I would get hands-on experience working with one other planner, while also being able to understand and gain an insight (from colleagues from other professions) into other aspects of the housebuilding industry," she says.

"This has enabled me to take a wider, more rounded view when approached by clients," she adds.


Mark Richards (26) Planner, Smiths Gore

MPlan in town and country planning, University of the West of England, 2006-10

Mark Richards has worked as a planner for rural property adviser Smiths Gore for three years. The firm offers a range of services, but Richards particularly enjoys his work with renewable energy projects and has recently worked on large-scale solar farms. "I like to think it's making the world a better place," he says. He developed an interest in renewables at university and his dissertation investigated public perception of renewable energy schemes. Richards believes his understanding of the subject has grown since joining Smiths Gore. Even with a job and a masters qualification, he has continued to study. He is now a chartered planner, having completed the RTPI's Assessment of Professional Competence, and is starting to manage his own projects.


Rosie Paget (25) Graduate planner, PRP Planning

Studying MA in environmental and spatial planning, Birmingham City University

Rosie Paget is a graduate planner at PRP Planning, which specialises in residential development. She manages several of her own projects but also assists more senior members with research. She has worked on several mixed use schemes, including the conversion of a petrol station into both shops and homes. Her current solo project involves converting a listed building. Paget has to balance employment with her studies as she completes a master's degree in environmental and spatial planning. She was an adviser at housing charity Shelter before her job in planning. "I think an enthusiasm for housing issues from my time at Shelter came through at my interview (for PRP)," she says. Paget had also done placements with consultancies Savills and Brooke Smith Planning.


Tom Rudd (23) Graduate planner, BDP

MTCP in town and country planning, University of Manchester, 2008-12; studying MA in urban design, University of Westminster

Graduate planner Tom Rudd is looking to specialise in spatial planning. He estimates that half of his work with multi-disciplinary practice BDP is in this field, which includes coming up with concepts and masterplans for redevelopment projects. The other half involves policy and legislation. "Spatial planning is about how we arrange our environment - it's more creative," he says. Rudd is now studying part-time for a master's degree in urban design to move closer into this role. He says a placement with consultancy WS Planning & Architecture drew him to this kind of work. He learnt to interpret technical plans and develop design statements. He had other placements with the Department for Communities and Local Government and consultancy CgMs.