Careers Advice: Getting experience of work in other planning systems

Written by: Richard Turner
Published on: 18 Feb 2019


In my experience as a planner it is important to be proactive and get experience in areas within which you are genuinely interested or passionate. After all it’s an exciting profession with endless opportunities both within the UK and across the world! Whilst such a change certainly doesn’t need to be as dramatic as moving 10,500 miles across the world, I actively sought to work in planning in Australia as well as more recently, and comparatively closer, in Scotland. Both of these experiences provided different legislative frameworks and planning challenges, but have certainly helped shape my career, for the better I think.

When seeking planning positions in both Australia and Scotland I rather naively anticipated that with several years’ experience in both the private and public sector, it would be relatively straightforward to secure a job. However, in both instances, demonstrating ‘local experience’ was the ultimate hurdle which I struggled initially to overcome. My advice to anyone, particularly looking for roles moving from the UK to Australia would be to gain some initial and invaluable experience from a more rural local authority. Once you have developed an understanding of the legislative context of the state you are working in, and got to grips with zoning, overlays and assessment processes it will be much easier to secure a position in the more competitive city job markets, if this is what you are looking for.  

A second vital ingredient to securing a position for me - in both Australia and Scotland - was utilising the wide planning network in both countries. There is nothing better than a positive referral from a previous employer or colleague, and you will be surprised how far and wide the international network of planners stretches. Use this to your advantage.  

Moving from the relative comfort of the UK planning system and framework within which I had worked for several years was daunting, but it provided a genuine challenge and opportunity to develop my research skills and understanding of new legislative contexts. The Welsh and Scottish systems I have worked in have key differences to England, and equally in Australia each state has a different legislative planning framework, so I had to adapt to the different approaches in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

I found ultimately that whilst it was a steep learning curve each time, it meant I read much more thoroughly the legislation and policies within which I was working, as opposed to probably relying too heavily on what other people had told me or summarised in the past. This has followed through to my current work in the UK, carefully reviewing relevant legislative and policy contexts for each project. I think moving outside of your comfort zone can provide a better focus on attention to detail and ensuring that you double or triple check that you are correct!

Despite different legislative contexts, geographical, political and demographic differences, the fundamental basics and purposes of planning have been the same wherever I have worked. I recently met planners in Jamaica who were working on the National Development Plan to 2030. Despite the very different contexts they faced the very familiar challenges of balancing environmental protection with social and economic benefits.  As planners we develop key skills and attributes which are directly transferable wherever we are working. In my experience it is our ability to translate complex technical information into easy and understandable summaries which are a key part of our role, and fundamental to balancing the complex issues which local communities and decision makers need to consider.

In states such as Victoria third party appeals are not uncommon. Such a challenge further focuses the quality of any submission. Even where applications are approved by a local authority, there is always the threat of an appeal, for which your submission must be capable of withholding a robust challenge from opposition.  

Community engagement was probably the greatest benefit and steepest learning curve for me. Working on a national infrastructure project across multiple states in Australia meant that community engagement was paramount to keeping the communities both fully informed and enabling them to genuinely understand site and feed into site selection and design.  

If you type ‘Nimbin’ into a search engine it won’t take long to see the type of challenges that were encountered from a community which holds the annual ‘Mardi Grass’ festival. One of my key takeaways from this was to understand that the community you’re working in almost always know the local area considerably better than you. This after all is the point of community engagement with local sensitivities and values being something no amount of report reading will identify in the same way.

Of course it is also highly unlikely that in the UK planning system you will have the opportunity to undertake community engagement events next to a ‘Community Thong Tree’!  But the skills I developed in listening, informing and negotiating have been invaluable, and I now utilise these in all projects, particularly major projects back in the UK.  

Richard Turner is principal planner at consultancy RPS Group