In the past, I’ve sometimes been told that policy work was not “real planning”, but working in a local authority planning policy team can provide essential skills for any career in planning, and beyond.
Why work in planning policy?
I have been working in the planning policy team at Wycombe District Council, initially as a policy assistant and then as a planning policy officer, for the past six years.
Working in policy allows you to develop your professional judgement as a planner. Early on after I joined the council, I became involved in strategic studies on matters like flood risk, water quality, Habitats regulations, which span across the whole district, and sometimes even a wider area.
Because preparing a local plan is very much a teamwork enterprise, it takes someone with great project and people management skills to be part of it. I’ve certainly learned a lot, from coordinating five challenging phases of local plan consultations to commissioning and managing external consultants on key studies as part of the plan’s evidence base.
Working in policy also enhances public speaking and facilitation skills, as you are bound to be involved in various public consultation meetings, and possibly through giving evidence at an examination. It also gives experience and grounding of working with elected members.
Ultimately, an adopted local plan can have political, environmental, socio-economical and place-making repercussions for the next decades, and so is the holy grail of any policy planner.
What makes a great policy planner?
As a policy planner, you always have to adapt to change, be it evolving legislation or policy or differing political directions. The work therefore requires excellent risk management competencies. Effective stakeholder management is also key as you take on the duty to cooperate, and other negotiations with developers, statutory bodies, and, of course, the public.
Flexible writing is another invaluable skill you get to hone in policy work, as you get to write a wide range of documents: consultation booklets, emails to the public, reports to cabinet members, technical briefing notes for senior officers, to name a few.
I would say, however, that the most important skill to master is the capacity to think strategically and laterally, and to understand interdependencies and to foster integration – it’s like being the Systems Engineer of planning!
Where can it lead?
Thanks to the nature and extent of work I have been involved with, I was successful in achieving Chartered Membership of the RTPI two years ago.
Having just finished experiencing the local plan examination where I gave evidence on my lead subject matters and on key sites, I am looking forward to new opportunities. This may include working on site development briefs. I will also take on different areas of technical work, as it is good for any policy team to have resilience in terms of the spread of knowledge and expertise. Right now I am honing my skills and knowledge about viability, transport modelling and major project delivery, working on the district’s biggest urban expansion.
How do you start?
If you’re studying, consider taking on a Spatial Planning masters’ degree, and then keep an eye out for job opportunities and openings in local planning authority policy teams. If you work in development management, see if you can do a secondment, or job shadowing period in the policy team. You may get to write the next housing mix, design or open space policies your colleagues use every day!
In summary – if you like a challenge, working in policy is a great way to pick up a wide variety of skills early on in your career, from public speaking to project / risk / stakeholder management, to lateral and strategic thinking.
Aude Pantel is planning policy officer at Wycombe District Council