How to stand out from the crowd

In a jobs market that's sluggish at best, planners need to think hard about how to make themselves not just useful but essential, writes Adam Branson.

Openings in the planning sector are few and far between at the moment. In local government, cuts are the order of the day and few councils have chosen to protect or prioritise planning. Things are little rosier in the private sector. While some consultancy bosses talk quietly about their "cautious optimism" for the months ahead, few if any firms are recruiting in anything like the manner they did back in those halcyon days of the mid-noughties.

What all this means for individual planners is simple: competition. If you are going for a new job, the chances are that you will be up against stiff opposition. But even if you are happy where you are, competition is likely to be fierce for remaining posts if cuts are made. As a result, planners are well advised to take a long look in the mirror and consider how they can make themselves as valuable to their employers as possible. It is no longer enough to be competent. In today's job market, you have to be indispensable.

Fortunately, there is some consensus among employers about the type of skills and knowledge they are after - and no shortage of training courses and qualifications that fit the bill. Perhaps inevitably, the most desirable attributes relate to the changing economic and policy situation.

Without exception, the employers interviewed for this feature - from both the public and the private sectors - believe that an understanding of how development projects stack up financially is now essential. Bob Robinson, chairman of planning consultancy DPP, says: "I don't think that planners as a breed are particularly sharp on development finance. But I think a basic understanding of development finance is very useful to have - and not just in the private sector."

Roger Hepher, head of planning and regeneration at property firm Savills, agrees. "Generally speaking, planners are not well equipped to understand the economics of development, but I think that's a skill set that everyone needs to have," he says. "Planning has increasingly become focused on delivery. But you can't focus on that unless you understand how developers and the property market work and how values, costs and timescales need to be considered in the equation."

Mike Hayden, head of the planning and regeneration department at Chesterfield Borough Council, says that it is vital that council planners grasp what developer contributions are viable for a proposed scheme if they are going to get the best deal for their communities. "Local authority planners need to understand the financial appraisals that are submitted, for example, in support of applications that justify a particular level of section 106 contributions or affordable housing," he says. "While some authorities would use independent advisers, we find that it's really helpful for our planners to have a good understanding of development viability and what goes into financial appraisals so that they can carry out their own interrogation of them."

Generic skills are also important. Professor Gavin Parker, director of professional standards at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says: "Many planners move on or up because they can deal with complex tasks, because they're adept at negotiation. Those kinds of transferable skills are things that planners should have early in their career."

Indeed, negotiation and communication skills are particularly relevant at the moment. Last November's Localism Act - in particular its introduction of a neighbourhood layer of planning and its insistence on pre-application consultation before submitting large planning applications - means that employers are very interested in people who deal well with the public and can argue a case. "Community engagement skills are increasingly important. If you get it right, it can make the difference between succeeding or not," says Hepher. "People sometimes think that there's nothing to it. In reality, it's quite a complicated business if you're going to have the maximum impact you can and get people agreeing with you."

Robinson says that, in some senses, developing community engagement skills is about learning how to avoid thinking like a remote planning professional. "It's about being able to understand ordinary concerns that are being raised and take them on board," he says. "When you're in a profession such as planning that involves dealing with the general public, it's no use sayings things to people like: 'This is a policy in our LDF', because they'll look at you as if you're talking a foreign language. You can quickly alienate people if you lapse into jargon."

Stephen Tucker, a partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, adds: "I have worked with some really proficient planners, but put them in front of a community and they just fall to pieces. Young people who can come in and talk, who can get people enthused about an idea, they're worth their weight in gold."

A large part of dealing effectively with the general public is down to presentation skills, a discipline that can be picked up in both formal and informal learning environments. Simon Coop, associate director at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, says: "Public speaking is something that's relevant across sectors because everybody has to do it at some point. But I think that the sooner people get into it the better. There are courses that can teach you the basics and show you where you're going wrong, but practical experience is also really important."

Another skill that interviewees frequently mentioned was project management. Again, this is something that is not specific to planning, but it is seen more and more as a must-have skill. "Project management is an increasingly important aspect of what we do," says Hayden. "We're delivering projects to pretty tight timescales, so the ability to take on and manage them is an important skill. Most of our planning team are having to take on that kind of responsibility, so if somebody already had those skills when they arrived for a job interview, it would certainly set them apart."

Hepher adds: "In the consultancy sector, planners are often expected to become the lead consultant, bringing in architects and ecologists and so on, and coordinating their work. Project management is partly just commonsense, but there are specific skills that can be taught to help people become more effective project managers."

Another way of making yourself stand out from the crowd is to develop a specialism in a field related to planning. Hayden, for instance, says that he wants employees who work in development control to have some knowledge of urban design as he sees this as fundamental to raising design standards across Chesterfield. When staff have lacked the required urban design knowledge, they have been sent on courses to ensure that they gain it, he says.

In addition, Hayden says that green skills such as environmental impact assessment (EIA) and sustainability appraisal are increasingly important. "This will inevitably become a much more specialist area of knowledge," he says. "I would have thought that this is a skill and knowledge base that any reasonable-sized authority would want to have in-house these days."

For his part, Coop agrees that specialist knowledge is increasingly a means to ensure increasing employability. "If you think about renewable energy, this is an area in which technology is moving on quickly and one that's going to become more and more important and discussed," he says. "If planners are going to get actively involved in the debate - and I think that they should - and if they're going to do their jobs properly, then they're going to have to understand this issue."

So, to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge that will make them as employable as possible, planners are advised to move in several directions at once. First, there are those general skills that can be applied in most areas of the built environment and beyond: attributes such as good presentation and project management skills. Then there are the specialist areas related to planning, such as EIA. But it is striking that every employer interviewed for this feature said that all planners need a grounding in development economics if they are to thrive in the modern workplace. Clearly, money talks.

Return to study gaining masters allowed job switch

Caroline Peach
Principal planning officer, conservation and urban design team, Bournemouth Borough Council

I had been working in the council's planning policy department for a few years and before that I had been in the development control department. I just got to the stage where I thought I wanted to do something new but something complementary to what I already knew. A few of my colleagues were working in urban design and I thought that some of the things they were doing were pretty interesting.

I decided to do a full-time urban design qualification. I could have worked and studied at the same time, but I decided against doing that. I wanted to be able to fully focus on my course rather than having to juggle too many things at the same time.

In the end, I did my course at the University of Westminster. They had some literature that said: "If you're this sort of person then you'll like urban design." It was all to do with the environment, people, conservation and politics. As I went through the list of things that are of interest to somebody doing an urban design course, I thought: "This is me." I just thought that it was describing all the original reasons why I went into planning.

I was going to go and do the masters anyway, but I struck a deal with the council's head of planning whereby I would resign my post, but in exchange for the council paying my tuition fees I agreed to come back to work for the authority after the course.

Gaining the qualification has massively helped my career. It's taken me in a new direction and to a more positive part of planning. Although you're working within planning legislation and policy controls, you also get to do quite a lot of creative thinking, which I enjoy. I'm now in an area that I find particularly interesting and challenging. It's also led to me moving into a more senior position. I was a senior planner and I'm now team leader. The qualification was instrumental in that: it was a condition of the job to have an urban design masters.

 

In-work training presentation skills are key

Oliver Yeats Planner, Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, Cardiff

I've had quite a lot of training in presentation skills from people who have come into the office to run one-day courses. That's useful in a number of ways. Obviously, it improves your technique and gives you confidence when it comes to talking in front of people. But it also teaches you how to put your arguments across. You can apply that to planning or any other subject you're dealing with. We have lunchtime seminars in which junior members of staff can apply the skills we've learned by giving a presentation on a specific aspect of planning to our colleagues. I haven't done a big presentation in front of hundreds of people yet, but there is a clear line of progression, with the consultancy feeding in those skills from early on in employees' careers. I attended an inquiry recently on a project that I have been involved in. While my presence wasn't essential, the firm sent me along as part of my development, so that I could see how inquiries work. NLP thinks that these sorts of skills are really important.

 

Professional development help run events

Michael Ward Senior urban designer, Barton Willmore, Edinburgh

As soon as I started working after my undergraduate planning course and urban design masters, I got involved in the Royal Town Planning Institute's West of Scotland chapter. I did that for four years. It's a fantastic way for someone coming out of university to meet other people at different levels in the profession and expose themselves to different continuing professional development (CPD) events. I was elected onto the chapter's committee just after I joined and was the events convenor for two years. We organised a CPD event each month, which I coordinated. The committee met once a month and we'd try to map out a programme for the year. It was also a way to make sure that you get some regular CPD yourself. Chapters will greet anyone interested in getting involved with open arms, especially young people because they're the lifeblood of the chapters. It's a way for graduates to get involved in the sector and to meet other professionals. It's invaluable and something that I'd encourage anybody to do.


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