In the course of my career, I have held a number of management posts in local government and in my current post, I am responsible for a multi-disciplinary team covering planning and transport in the city of Southampton, and for a planning policy partnership between the city council and a neighbouring authority. Therefore, it is crucial to have the ability to manage a team with various people with different skills and experiences.
Sense of place
Firstly, as a planner it is essential to get to know your place. Take time to get to know the geography – both the opportunities and the constraints; the local economy – what is driving investment decisions; get to know your key stakeholders and understand what their priorities are for the area and for the community. Experience your city/towns/neighbourhoods first hand as a stakeholder. Doing this with your team is important as it is only when you understand the local context that you can articulate your vision of the future for that place, for your team to get behind. Knowing the important local detail will give you credibility in addressing issues too.
Know your people
Your staff are your greatest asset. It is important to get to know them and their skills and interests. I have had a few experiences in my career where the importance of this was very clear. As a planning officer I was fairly new to an organisation and came out of an evening planning committee meeting and bumped into the chief executive. I had no idea that he knew who I was but he greeted me by name and asked how I was settling in. Similarly, a director who I worked for in a large county council knew all his staff by their first names and always showed an interest in his staff as individuals. I was always impressed by his personal touch. It’s invaluable getting to know your team, especially when they are located in different places.
Know their work
When managing a multi-disciplinary team it is important to demonstrate that you are not just a ‘planner’ and that if you are responsible for other professional disciplines you need to build trust in your staff that you understand their professional world, and can be an effective advocate for them. When I took on responsibility for the transport functions in my current role it was important for me to demonstrate that I was not a planner who had taken over their area with no knowledge or interest in it. I ensured that I didn’t have a specific office or desk, instead making a point of sitting with the transport teams so I understood them and the daily challenges they face. It is also important to treat everyone in your team equally. All of your team have an important role to play, and need to feel valued, wherever they are in the organisational hierarchy.
Understand the political context
Many in local government don’t fully understand the political system that they work within. We have all had experiences of elected members testing our patience, but don’t forget that we often test theirs too! It is so important to respect democratic accountability. Elected members are the eyes and ears of their electorate so do everything you can to work collaboratively with them. Use them as advocates for change in your local plan processes; get them on side with big development schemes; get them on liaison committees where there are community tensions; and work behind the scenes with your leader, your portfolio holder, your chair of planning committee and the opposition. Without these relationships, your task will be much harder!
People are often put off from getting involved in shaping their communities because they don’t feel empowered to break through the bureaucracy. We have a leadership role in ensuring we remove barriers to engagement, and to ensure that all stakeholders are given an opportunity to have a voice. Therefore, always use plain English, don’t use ‘planning jargon’ and challenge your staff to think creatively about how to engage and consult. Don’t just follow what the National Planning Policy Framework says!
Planners are sometimes portrayed as following the rule book and finding ways to say no. So instil an ethos in your team that we are all here to find positive solutions, and empower your team to work together positively.
By concentrating on each individual’s strengths (not on their weaknesses) you will get the best out of them and they will hopefully respond positively in their attitude to their work. Above all, give your staff the freedom to enjoy their work and take pride in the places that they are shaping.
Sam Fox is the service lead for infrastructure, planning and development at Southampton City Council