Stephen Ssejjemba has a simple but effective philosophy that he applies to most situations in life: "What can I do to make the world a better place?" It helps to challenge him but also to focus his planning role.
Ssejjemba proudly asserts that the maxim has led him from his native Uganda to his dream job as a senior planning officer at Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe. He is responsible for a series of regeneration projects in the south of the city, from large-scale housing schemes to local town centres.
Ssejjemba left a well-paid job and a large house in Uganda at the age of 26 because he felt that he could contribute more to society. After much consideration, he took up a place on an MBA course at Lancaster University. But just 45 minutes into his first ever flight, he was involved in a plane crash.
It was a traumatic experience, but the ever-positive Ssejjemba's philosophy helped him to deal with it. "It forced me to assess what I would have contributed if I had died in the crash and to consider any extra time I had been granted as a bonus."
Flying over England for the first time, he noticed how land was distributed and supposed that it must be a very organised community. He was curious to discover how the country functioned but on arriving in Manchester he was bewildered. "I could not see how people survived without access to fields to get their daily food," he recalls.
Growing up in rural Uganda, Ssejjemba had a close relationship with the land. "As a child I kept and looked after rabbits. My project became successful and I would travel to neighbouring villages to make links and learn from others. I would then return and share this information with the friends who helped me," he explains.
"This empowered them, so when I left to go to school they could continue the project. We would build shelters for the rabbits out of bricks we made ourselves and cut down trees to make roofs. Making rabbit cities required good judgement. I remember hearing on the radio about places like London and wondered how such big cities were made."
Ssejjemba's childhood musings did not lead directly to a career in town planning. After completing his MBA, it was an advert in a London paper for a Positive Action Training Highway (PATH) attachment to Brighton and Hove City Council that set him on the road.
The PATH scheme tackles the under-representation of black and minority ethnic groups in key service areas, including planning. It appealed to his core values of creating sustainable communities and presented the opportunity to plan cities and realise a childhood dream.
Contemporaries from his MBA course questioned his decision to change direction and return to university. But Ssejjemba could not be more sure that he made the right choice. He was unconcerned about how long it would take to train, given his genuine passion for the planning profession. "Every day when I am doing my work, I feel like someone has told me 'Go on holiday and we will pay you for it'," he says.
He thinks that planners should engage far more with communities and see themselves as a resource at the service of people. "It is important to shift our perspective and adjust our mindsets to start changes to the built environment from a people-engaging rather than a place-making framework," he believes. "It is really important to let the vision evolve from communities rather than planners imposing it from the top down."
He recounts an anecdote to illustrate his belief. "The Polaroid camera was invented after a three-year-old girl asked her father why they could not see the photos they had taken immediately. Instead of dismissing her question as childish, her father used it as a trigger to produce such a camera. To be successful in urban regeneration, it is vital to consider different people's perspectives. It is about stretching yourself to see whether a different opinion will give you something better."
To this end, Ssejjemba has become involved in the Birmingham Young People's Focus Group. The views of teenagers are rarely taken into account in local government decision-making, he points out. "We have begun to change this through the group, with members getting together every couple of months to comment on major planning applications and new policies in the city," he reports.
Originally, the group was made up of people who were interested in planning as a career. Indeed, several former members have gone on to full-time study or employment in the sector. More recently, however, the group has been extended in an effort to make it more representative of young people across the whole of the city.
The group's views are included in officers' reports to the planning committee and taken into consideration when councillors make their decisions. Those decisions are then reported back to the membership. "The group has been particularly valuable not only in helping ensure that young people's voices are heard but also in building links between the council and minority ethnic communities in the city," he says.
Ssejjemba's driving philosophy is an excellent advert for the planning profession. He maintains that his current role demonstrates a simple proposition: "Regenerating and enhancing town centres attracts business, which generates more jobs and so improves people's lives." CV
Education: MBA, Lancaster University, 2003; MA in planning policy and practice, London South Bank University, 2007
Interests: Charity work, speed walking, watching football
2008: Senior planning officer, Birmingham City Council
2004: Placement planning officer, Brighton and Hove District Council
1997: Executive manager, Buyaya Technical Services, Uganda.