When I went for my first planning job after a career in education, it was as an enforcement officer. Why enforcement, you might ask? I’m from a family of police officers and saw it as an opportunity to gain some experience ‘in the real world’.
I enjoyed politics, architecture, environmental science to name a few subjects and I was interested mostly about how all of these elements interacted on a spatial scale, and more specifically how planning can shape the world around us. I didn’t want to become a copper. But what I found on taking up the role was that I'd become a Planning Copper!
Most people would have shied away from such a job, turned the corner – it’s too confrontational, too litigious, too much of a challenge. But when I accepted the job I remember what my manager said when I accepted: “Well done…you are now a therapist, a lawyer, psychologist, an architect, an engineer, and so on and so on,…”, she said. But she also added: “Welcome to a dream team, a special team of forgotten people that give credibility to an otherwise broken system”. I thought, gee what have I let myself in for!
Almost a decade later, with a number of training courses under my belt, three-quarters of the way through a Masters degree, with membership of the RTPI and the National Association of Planning Enforcement (NAPE), I’m still at it.
If I had a penny for everyone who said “have you got nothing better to do?”, I'd be very rich, but the fact is that enforcement is often the forgotten hero in planning. It is the glue that binds the other functions of planning together – it forms linkages between policy, the law and people – whether you manage that or control it depends on how you see what planning is about and in who’s benefit it does what it does.
An enforcement officer requires unique skills, as NAPE points out. The organisation's motto – Advise, Negotiate, Regularise, Protect and Enforce - is without doubt the thread that should be the embodiment of all planning professionals. You are one person in a vastly complicated system and you are often the only person that some people have interacted with.
Essential skills for enforcement officers are knowledge of the law, the need to understand your local policy but, most of all, the need to understand people. You need to be empathetic, compassionate, a good non-verbal communicator, be adaptable, self-reflective, critically reflective person, one that has a great deal of patience, have an eye for detail - a people person that attempts to resolve conflicts. Having a good knowledge of people enables you to fulfill your role as an advisor, a negotiator, someone who resolves conflict. A great sense of humour always helps.
The key point is that don’t take things too seriously and always look at things in the round – the wider picture. Ensure that all your actions are proportionate and appropriate to the issues.
My old boss wasn’t wrong – enforcement is indeed at the coalface of planning. You have the opportunity to shape the urban environments around you, shape the policy that drives it and also change the lives of the many that are affected by those who may, at least to some, choose to flout the law.
David Lomas is planning compliance officer at Wycombe District Council