Careers Advice: The benefits to planners of having a wide perspective of local government work

Written by: Nicky Linihan
Published on: 3 Sep 2018

Waltham Forest Council

One thing which I have always tried to encourage planners working in local government to do is to think of themselves as ‘planners’ rather than ‘policy planners’ or ‘development management’ planners. I always advocate taking the opportunity to get involved in different elements of the profession, as it can provide very valuable insights and skills which can help in career progression.

I started my career in local government development control, and this gave me a really good grounding in planning work, but I then took a secondment in policy and progressed my career from there. I got involved in project managing a potential new settlement proposal and developing section 106 guidance. I then carried on down the policy path in my career, but because I had spent nearly the first ten years of my career doing development control work, it gave me a good perspective when developing policies – could colleagues dealing with planning applications actually implement what I was writing, and was it clear what my policies were trying to achieve?

As I spent more time in policy I ended up becoming more involved in other policy areas including transport planning and economic development and that enabled me to have a better understanding of things that are after all a part and parcel of spatial planning, and how they all interact. Having such a wider understanding is also something I would strongly advocate, because it is all part of being what I call a ‘one council’ approach.

I’ve never professed to be a specialist, but quite often as a planner you’ve got to assimilate a huge amount of information from people who have technical expertise in things like environmental health and highways, and working with and understanding different areas of the planning department and other council departments can really help with this.

For example, if you are a DM officer you may have consultation responses from different departments, and it’s helpful to be open and ask them to explain their response if you don’t understand how they’ve come to the view they have. Then, if you’re taking the application to planning committee or appeal, if you’ve got more facts and understanding about why you’ve come to your recommendation – including the input from these specialist officers - you will have more confidence when making or defending your recommendation. You’ve got to draw the threads  together and take that view on the planning balance – so understanding all those different elements is really valuable.

Skills picked up in DM work can also be helpful in wider policy work, particularly for implementation and delivery.  DM work often includes thinking about the practicalities of delivery, phasing and how you phase section 106 agreements, and being clear about the wider infrastructure needs and priorities. You have to recognise that you can’t have everything at commencement of development, so thinking through what is needed at what point in the build is really important.

Knowledge of development finance is also an important skill for a range of planning work. I would say to anybody whatever part of planning they work in, that having some understanding of the practicalities of development finance is good. It works both ways – on the one hand it means that you can be confident that you are being realistic in terms of what you are asking for or when you are asking for it,  and to give you a grounding if you feel you need to negotiate with applicants if you feel that a more policy-compliant approach might be doable from their perspective.

It’s important when you are writing policies and you want them to be translated into how development happens on the ground, to have that combination of skills. Such a wide perspective is useful not only in terms of planning applications and writing policies but also understanding what the council is trying to achieve overall – what are its objectives for the local area and the communities within it – and looking at how planning can play a role in supporting them.

The fundamental thing in my eyes is that being a good planner is all about supporting the implementation of positive spatial planning to make great places, including delivering what the community need and wants as much as possible, and making a difference out there. It’s a one council approach, and if there are people who have skills and knowledge that help you do what you’re doing better, then its important that you work together. Sometimes that means you have to get off your seat and go and make those connections.

Nicky Linihan is communications officer and housing topic specialist at the Planning Officers Society and an Independent planning consultant