Careers Advice: The rise of health planning specialists

Written by: Michael Chang
Published On: 31 Jul 2017

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There has been a resurgence of interest in planning for health since public health responsibilities moved back into local authorities and references to consideration of health strategies and needs were introduced in the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012.

There has also been acceptance of the benefits of focusing on ‘upsteam’ preventative measures to improve health outcomes among the general population, and ultimately savings to NHS and local health and care budgets. The planning system is recognised as a key tool to fighting many of the health challenges the nation faces.

Public health teams in local authorities and agencies like Public Health England and NHS England are attempting get a foot in the door of planning strategies and policies, while planners are increasingly calling on public health evidence to inform policies and decisions for a range of planning applications. As a result there has been a rise in a number of health planners where addressing the determinants of ill-health through planning and regeneration work has been incorporated into job descriptions.  

But how do you become a health planner? One of the overwhelming messages to come from the Town and Country Planning Association’s recent Reuniting Health with Planning initiative is: ‘Do something to get started, however small.’

1. Remember the shared origins of public health and planning

Town planners know that considering health and wellbeing isn't a new thing for them. But as a head of planning once said to the TCPA, “sometimes planners can get rather downtrodden..[working with health] can re-awaken that sense of standing up for the wider objectives of the planning system.’ One of the things you can do on your own initiative is look at the local health and wellbeing strategy, and the joint strategic needs assessment, which the NPPG Paragraphs 17 and 171 require you to do anyway.

2. Improve communication with your public health teams

It doesn't all come down to technical expertise.  But a simple step change in opening up communication channels, beyond what is required in statutory consultation, with public health teams in the local authority and wider NHS family, promises to yield a whole new area of intelligence and data for making sound planning policies and decisions.

3. Recognise the health impact of your decisions

We all came into planning to make a difference and adopting a formal or informal health impact assessment to make sure we appreciate the potential health impacts, whether positive or negative, of our actions shaping the built environment is a start.

4. Actively participate in health-related conferences and workshops

If you are looking at more interesting areas to meet your annual CPD hours requirement, then accepting those invitations to participate in planning for health events or workshops is a great start. The health sector is always seeking the planning perspective to a variety of issues ranging from tackling air pollution to potential new research areas on prevention through environmental measures. Your active participation and insight will always be appreciated and it won’t be long til your contribution is recognised and sought after.

5. Be comfortable that you will be a generalist in an area of specialists

Your planning expertise is more valuable than you know, especially for those working outside the profession and system. You don't need to be medically trained but ultimately it may be useful to seek formal CPD through organisations such as the UK Faculty of Public Health. But also know that one of the strengths of being a planner is that we think strategically and holistically, and we have the ability to draw specialists together to create sustainable successful places.  

Michael Chang is project and policy manager at the Town and Country Planning Association