Planning is about making the right things happen in the right places. That requires working with people who have an interest in whether the subject of a plan happens or not, not treating them as 'an interference'. As such the question for planners is 'how easy is it to be a customer of my service?'
Customer care starts at the top
Ultimately good practice in communications in any planning office is down to senior managers. A poor customer-care approach reflects on themselves as much as the staff. After all, junior planners are less likely to be rude or uncaring if they know their manager will never back such bad practices.
Listening skills matter
Listening to what people have to say is hugely beneficial in improving the planning service you provide. It may sound simple, but learning to listen is essential to service development.
How clear are my communication skills?
Communication skills take many different forms, but the key point is ensuring the form and complexity of the communication is appropriate to the level of understanding of your particular audience, be it a head of planning from a neighbouring authority, a housebuilder up against a deadline, or an inquisitive resident. Technology has its place, but it is never a substitute for face-to-face discussions, so don't hide behind your computer when the other side wants to meet about a local planning issue: it gives an impression of not caring or, worse, having something to hide.
Handle complaints objectively
We all make mistakes, it's called being human. So when something goes wrong, don't circle the wagons and defend the indefensible. First rule if something has gone wrong is to acknowledge it and then put it right, working with your planning colleagues to try and make sure it does not happen again. Second rule is to tell people how you are going to put it right – this is not an acknowledgement of failure, but a positive sign of moving forward.
A final thought
From time to time, it never hurts thinking 'what would I tell my partner I did today'? Face it, you wouldn't go home to your other half and, when asked 'what did you do today, darling?', say... “Well, I failed to respond to five emails, refused to have a meeting with a developer's agent, failed to respond to an enquiry about an interpretation of planning law, and told a complainant to go away.' So why do those things?
Chris Weetman is a private planning consultant, a former head of planning and an associate of Trevor Roberts Associates