Careers Advice: The advantages of starting a planning career in local government

Written by: Nigel Harris
Published on: 26 Mar 2018

Council chamber

For many graduates entering the world of planning today there would appear to be many opportunities both in the private and the public sector as well as far more subject areas than when I began my career in 1987. Urban design, place-making and Sustainability were not on the curriculum. For me the choice of you first job was prominently in local government either in local plans or development control as we used to call it then. There were very few places available in the private sector.

In hindsight this had two major implications or advantages.

Firstly, the majority of the subject matter that was taught at universities and polytechnics in the 1980’s had little or no relevance to your first post in whatever local planning authority you were lucky enough to secure a job. How many of us “older” members of the profession remember that phone call on a Monday morning in your first few weeks from someone asking if the shed, garage or extension they wanted to erect in their back garden needed planning permission? That brief moment of confusion and horror when you realised that 4 years of higher education had not prepared you in the least for that moment or to be able to give a proper reasoned reply.

Secondly, and on a more serious note related to the first, my generation of fellow planning graduates by working in a local planning authority had to learn very quickly the “ins and outs” of the planning regulations and the General Permitted Development Order. They also more importantly, had to learn the ways of local government.

Like any large organisation or institution, the workings of local government is both complex and political. Not only have any new graduate planners got to learn planning policies both local and national and the processing of a planning application from registration to determination, they also have to get a quick understanding of the statutory processes that govern that determination. In addition they have to learn of the political influences that exist within any local planning authority which can ultimately impact on the final decision taken. If they are lucky they may well also get some experience in the appeals process and in dealing with the Planning Inspectorate.

Having a good understanding of the workings of local government and experience of working in that environment, even if it is for just a couple of years before moving into the private sector, is in my opinion a valuable asset to have on any CV. Whilst many private companies such as Boyer offer excellent graduate programmes, there is no disadvantage to starting your career in local government. Indeed, it could easily be argued that those planners who have worked in a local planning authority have a distinct advantage over those that have not.

As a planner now working in the private sector, you will have a good understanding the constraints that your fellow local planning officer in development management (as it is now called) has to deal with. This means that you are in a far better position to promote whatever site or application you are dealing with.

Nigel Harris is director at consultants Boyer Planning