Careers Advice: The benefits of working in a property consultancy and the recipe for a successful planning career

Written by: David Bainbridge
Published on: 15 Oct 2018

David Bainbridge

Looking back there was nothing obvious which sparked my interest in town and country planning.

Brought up in Tyneside I was aware of regeneration and the power of green places; especially the scale and specialness of the Town Moor to the north of Newcastle Town Centre.

But really it was the city of Edinburgh which drew me into planning.  I wanted to study in the City and Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh College of Art had courses on town planning, housing studies and landscape architecture.

Roll forward 20 years after graduating, I am lucky to have held professionally satisfying roles in local government and property consultancy.

Thanks to the support of senior colleagues, especially my current and past heads of planning at consultancy Bidwells, I have progressed to become a partner, working with talented cross-divisional teams for a range of clients across residential and commercial sectors.

It is this team work that challenges what I know as a planner and adds to the interest and variation in the role.

Working for a property consultancy rather than a planning-only consultancy adds to the variety and width of experience.  One day I might advise on the planning strategy for strategic-scale mixed-use development and the next provide planning advice to colleagues for development viability appraisal, estate management or valuation appraisal.

Keeping technical skills up to date through continued learning within a structured approach is essential for a planner.

As a chartered planner being a corporate member of the RTPI, I have the structure and resources needed and I supplement this with wider learning; both formal and informal.

My area of expertise - developed over several years - is planning for strategic land and residential development.  

I am fortunate to advise some wonderful clients who are landowners, developers, land promoters and house builders. No two clients are the same with varying investment strategies, timescales and appetites for planning risk. However, what they all have in common is the need for relevant and timely advice on planning strategy and to plan for the unknown. This is especially relevant in the golden triangle where I operate most; covering Oxford to Cambridge and London.

It took me a while to discover my interests and develop my specialisms and during this time I found it important to have a wide experience; ranging from planning in a largely rural district council through to town centre regeneration in an urban borough council. There is much value in gaining experience in roles in the public sector and private sector. The skills needed to arrive at a balanced judgement are many and varied and one should not fear giving a professional view when informed by evidence. Planning policy sets the framework for decision-making but must not dictate the decision.  

To progress your career, I consider it is vital to have a supportive employer, find a knowledgeable mentor, establish your areas of interest and develop a professional profile.

People do business with people and hence personal relationships are fundamental to achieving objectives. Never has this been more important than in the current climate of emails replacing conversations. There is so much more to be gained by speaking with colleagues, clients and stakeholders. Younger property professionals are more prone to the email culture and whilst emails have their place there is no substitute from a face-to-face meeting whether over coffee or a good meal.

An irony is that whilst reliance on emails can miss an opportunity, the selective use of social media can enhance planning knowledge. Many great professionals in the built environment and law are active on social media, putting timely updates on best practice and case law.

Penning an article on an area of interest and speaking at public events helps profile and grows your professional network.

If there was a recipe for success as a planner, it would involve a broad experience especially in the early years, a desire to find areas of interest, develop a specialism and create and maintain a professional profile and network.

David Bainbridge is partner - planning at consultancy Bidwells