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Wonderful Workplaces in planning: Be First / London Borough of Barking & Dagenham

Written by: Jennifer Jackson
Published on: 13 Aug 2018

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As part of Planning Jobs' Wonderful Workplaces initiative, Matt Fraser, team manager - planning, at Penguin Recruitment, speaks to Caroline Harper, chief planner at Be First, LB of Barking & Dagenham, about how they're creating a wonderful workplace - “the stuff of career dreams”.

Caroline Harper, Be First

Caroline Harper, chief planner at Be First, LB of Barking & Dagenham

Tell me about Be First and the work you do

Be First is the urban regeneration vehicle for the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham. We are a developer and a property consultancy. We undertake statutory services like planning and building control on the council’s behalf. We intend to deliver 50,000 new homes and 20,000 new jobs over the next 20 years, and are committed to ensuring no-one is left behind. The income that we generate is reinvested into the council’s public services.

My team provides the core services that you’d expect of a local planning authority such as development management, policy, building control, and transport and highways. We also have a growing planning consultancy team. This means we offer a planning super service, providing a joined-up approach that includes the commercial consultancy advice that’s typically previously been provided by the private sector, and the technical officer input that’s come from the public sector. The result is greater certainty and greater efficiency.  


"This is really Barking & Dagenham’s moment as London’s development pushes ever eastwards, and the projects here are the stuff of career dreams."


Can you highlight any exciting projects you’ve been working on? 

This is really Barking & Dagenham’s moment as London’s development pushes ever eastwards, and the projects here are the stuff of career dreams. 

Our projects range from the smaller householder applications, to infill medium size development, to masterplanning and co-ordinating the delivery of thousands of new homes, and the employment floorspace required to support a future-facing economy. 

In planning consultancy, we work on securing planning permission for the council’s portfolio of sites, as well as for developers and investors in the borough and, in time, will be doing this outside the borough too.

What makes a wonderful workplace in your eyes and what are you doing to create this?

Good people plus a good workspace and decent coffee! Then there are the less tangible factors like feeling part of a team with an important goal, feeling trusted, feeling supported, and working on projects that meet your personal job aspirations. We tick all those boxes!

What is the team culture like in your planning team and what kind of people make a great fit?

Be First is a new company which has been operating since October 2017, and it’s a time of growth and transition for my team, many of whom have moved over from the council. I’m relatively new too, having joined from the private sector at the end of March. Our team culture is therefore evolving, reflecting that, in many respects, Be First is a start-up. Positive people who are project-orientated, enthusiastic, dream big and have a love for the built environment and how the borough develops, fit in well.

What are some of the key challenges facing local authority planning teams?

While we are 100% owned by the council, we operate independently. This puts us in a fairly unique position compared to most local authority planning teams, as my intention is that we combine the good practices from the public and private sectors. But as a general point, there is a shortfall of senior level planners, which has implications for plugging resourcing gaps across planning. Overturning the often (unfairly) poor reputation for under-resourced, over-burdened LPAs is also a challenge. To me it’s a no-brainer to work at Be First given its remit, its sites, its aspirations and its people, but it’s getting this message out there that is key.

What are your top three career tips for planning professionals?

  • Never stop learning. It’s so important to keep on top of your technical expertise. As you move up the career hierarchy this really sets you apart from those who are winging it or relying solely on junior colleagues. 
  • Be solution-driven.  Be the person who says ‘I don’t know, but I will…’ rather than the person who offers a feeble ‘I don’t know’.  Be the person who handles a mistake by dealing with it. See something and think: ‘that would work better if we did this’.
  • If you’re not enjoying your job at least 80% of the time, it’s time for a change. Check out Be First - we are the future!

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