Careers Advice: Careers in the planning profession

 James Doe

There’s never been a better time to have a career in planning. When I began my career in the 1980s, fresh and idealistic from university, the sense of disappointment was huge in my immediate workload being limited to assessing whether Mrs Jones’ new extension would affect Mr Smith of next door’s privacy. 

But times have hugely changed from planning being a largely technical exercise to one where the challenges of dealing with major new growth and place-making are largely commonplace. Of course, the issues Mrs Jones and Mr Smith face still need dealing with, but with the current challenges of delivering major growth, urban transformation and co-ordinating infrastructure delivery, the opportunity to help shape the environment at all levels is great. 

What motivates you?

Planning is a diverse, challenging and exciting profession. If you are driven by seeing things happen relatively quickly, then a development management caseload, processing planning applications to tight deadlines, is likely to suit you. If you are analytical, a strategic thinker and visionary, then get involved in planning policy, in either local plans or the growing number of joint strategic plans that are emerging. More authorities are now leading on regeneration and development delivery programmes, and all have to plan for new infrastructure needs. This is a great area to get into where you are interested in project management and working directly with developers.

Develop and deploy your personal skills

Today, the skill of ‘relationship management’ has become as important as the technical aspects of the profession. One of the great challenges in this job is to engage successfully with all levels of interest – be it developers, local residents, businesses or councillors - in order to deliver high quality developments.

Entry at so many levels

Back in the day, the obligatory planning degree at undergraduate level was a near certain necessity. Whereas this remains the main route of entry to the profession, more employers, particularly local authorities, are taking on apprentices who are keen to learn and are highly motivated. Today’s apprenticeship levy helps councils put new staff through the right training. Another route at a lower qualification level, albeit longer, is to take an administrative role in a planning department, for which you may only need GCSEs. You will learn the basics of the process there, and if you show the right aptitude, some employers will train you and allocate you with a basic caseload, which can provide a springboard to greater things. Some of my best junior planners have come through this way. 

Public or Private sector?

Increasingly, there are more planners who have worked in both sectors – and both benefit from the crossover of experience. A career in the private sector will sharpen your understanding of the commercial realities of the development process, and importantly, you get the opportunity to shape the content and style of schemes from the start. Local authorities often welcome private sector experience as it brings a further dimension to the skills their planning teams have. Similarly, the private sector will look for experience in local or central government as it helps them successfully navigate the regulatory and forward planning processes. 

In summary, as someone with an interest in the built and natural environments, there are now so many opportunities for you to make your mark. Know what interests you, bring your technical and interpersonal skills and choose the right path for you – and don’t be put off if you think you are not qualified well enough.

James Doe is assistant director - planning, development and regeneration, at Dacorum Borough Council

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