How do they do it? Rosemarie MacQueen

Written by: Colin Marrs
Published on: 18 Mar 2014

Rosemarie MacQueen Westminster Council

Rosemarie MacQueen has one of the most high profile jobs in planning.

As strategic director of the built environment at Westminster City Council, she is responsible for planning applications affecting Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Paddington station and Oxford Street.

With more than 13,000 applications submitted to the council each year, it is the busiest local planning authority in the UK by some distance.

Q. What was your first job in planning?

After my first degree in sociology, I got a Social Science Research Council full time grant to do a two-year postgraduate course – a rather radical planning qualification at the Architectural Association which was led by Leslie Ginsberg. After I qualified, he was looking for someone to work over the summer at his planning consultancy in Covent Garden. I worked in planning and architecture.

Q. What are your objectives in your current role and how are you measured against them?

I have five main strategic objectives which are broken down further into performance indicators. These include balancing my budget, dealing with a target number of planning applications, and also cover strategic policy expectations that are council-wide. We don’t have bonuses – at the start of the year ten per cent is taken away from my salary and I have to earn two per cent in each of the five objective areas. I have monthly meetings with the chief executive, and formal tracking meetings every six months on whether my staff and I are delivering against the objectives.

Q. What are your career highlights?

Working in Westminster means that there is something interesting to deal with every day. It is almost impossible to choose a highlight with so many extraordinary applications. I may find myself visiting the Palace of Westminster or Buckingham Palace or Downing Street to deal with planning issues.At the moment, we are working with developer Land Securities to transform the area around Victoria Street. Crossrail, the Thames Tideway Tunnel and High Speed 2 are also all impacting on the borough.

Q. What advice would you give planners at earlier stages of their career?

I think the best advice is to grab all the opportunities that come your way. Staff may feel that they have got into a stalemate with no improvement in their pay over the past five years, but some people have made quite creative career moves into different types of job. Moving between different disciplines in planning gives you much more rounded experience. For instance, nowadays it is very useful to have experience in viability issues. The more you push yourself into areas you don’t feel comfortable with, the better.

Q. Can you list three key lessons you have learnt during your career?

A. Planning involves a perpetual juggling act between many material factors. It is never just a case of just applying a set of policies - you have to do it in the context of a lot of shifting factors.
Planning is partly about working to facilitate developers’ visions and expectations, but also shaping them and making them respond to the properly audited plans that have been adopted
Finally, planning is political. Westminster is involved currently in merging a number of services with two neighbouring boroughs, but the politicians don’t want to go down that route with planning – sovereignty in this area is very much prized.