Planning Careers: Employers - What is it like to work for ...?

Ever wondered what working life is like at other public or private sector employers of planners? Lee Baker and Jim Dunton are your guides.

Barton Wilmore's Reading office
Barton Wilmore's Reading office

With so many potential employers to choose from, what is it that attracts a planner to a certain company or local authority?

In the pages that follow, a number of planners reveal what it is like to work for their particular organisation. We asked what attracted them to work where they do, what kind of projects have they worked on, what is their typical week like, and what do they enjoy most about their job?

In some instances, the lure was the large size of the authority or consultancy, and the fact that this gives planners who work there the opportunity to get involved in higher-profile, more challenging projects. Having influence over large-scale developments or multi-million pound infrastructure investments of national significance was the draw.

For others, it is the chance to protect and improve something special and distinctive about the area they work in, whether that is protected landscapes or much-loved local open spaces.

Training and mentoring schemes are also highlighted by interviewees as an attractive feature when they are considering job opportunities. "Buddy schemes", "in-house professional development scheme", "continuing professional development", "leadership programmes" - the names vary, but it is clear that support towards future opportunities is vital for planners at all stages of their career.

As shapers of the built environment, it should perhaps be no surprise that many of the planners here cite their place of work itself as a benefit. Contemporary town centre headquarters, converted cotton mills or churches are just some of the workplaces that are providing inspiration for today's built environment professionals.

The planners we spoke to were also keen to emphasise the value of benefits they enjoy over and above their salaries. These include flexible working, profit-share schemes and private medical cover.

PLANNING CONSULTANCIES

SAVILLS

The main attraction of property firm Savills for Alison Wright was its large size, she says. Her first job following her masters degree was at a small practice, but she realised that moving to a larger consultancy was important for her career. "I wasn't unhappy where I was before, but I was looking to progress," she says. "One of Savills' unique selling points is that it is very commercially minded, meaning that the projects we work on aren't just ideas - they get built."

She has been at the firm since 2010, and works in its Oxford office, where there are over 100 people with a range of disciplines. Her role entails monitoring landholdings for clients and promoting housing development in Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties, as well as further afield in places such as Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.

Savills is supportive of staff career development, Wright says. It has a mentoring scheme and the firm put Wright forward for the Royal Town Planning Institute young planner of the year award, which she won, and supported her in making a speech at the young planners' conference earlier this month.

Wright also enjoys the culture at Savills, which she describes as "work-hard, play-hard".

The company actively encourages staff to push themselves beyond their comfort zone - which includes moving to other offices around the country to pursue new opportunities, she says.

Benefits:

- Pension plan

- Private medical insurance

- Mentoring scheme for new employees

- Training: Savills seminars and national planning conference


BARTON WILLMORE

Planning and design company Barton Willmore offers its employees plenty of variety, according to associate Sara Dutfield. "Although we are known for residential development, we are also involved in promoting employment, leisure and recreational development," she says.

Dutfield has recently benefitted from Barton Willmore's leadership programme to support associates, which is a two-day course with follow-up sessions. "It operates by invitation only and gives associates more of an insight into business as a whole, running organisations, and the decisions that need to be taken," she says. "It's the bigger picture, rather than being planning-centred."

Dutfield joined the consultancy as a senior planner from West Berkshire Council in 2008. "What I really liked about Barton Willmore was that it is a big consultancy and multi-disciplinary, so it covers all the stages of a project, from the very beginning to people moving into the building," she says.

Benefits:

- Leadership programme to support associates

- 28.5 days' annual leave at associate level

- Profit-share scheme


HALLIDAY FRASER MUNRO

Scott Leitch is an associate at Halliday Fraser Munro (HFM), a multidisciplinary consultancy based in Aberdeen's West End. Clients range from private individuals to global energy firms.

His role involves project managing the masterplanning of a new 400-home urban village in an area of the city called Woodside.

Halliday Fraser Munro has an in-house professional development scheme. Leitch says this programme aims to help staff contextualise their work as part of the wider process of development. "The scheme features speakers from outside the consultancy, and is designed to give staff a greater understanding from the development industry perspective."

Leitch, 35, moved to the firm from Aberdeenshire Council in 2007. The culture in the private sector is very different to the public sector, he notes. "At the consultancy, things are a bit less regulated. You have to figure out how to do things yourself, and there's no particular right way to do things; you just have to get them done."

Benefits:

- 30 days' annual leave on joining

- In-house professional development programme


NATHANIEL LICHFIELD & PARTNERS

Sophie Hitchins, 26, started at Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners (NLP)as a graduate in autumn 2010.

Despite having job offers from other, smaller, practices she had been impressed by a graduate-recruitment day she attended at the partnership before her interview and the breadth of opportunities it offered.

"Here there is a graduate rotation system where you do a year to 18 months with a different team, such as retail, leisure and tourism, or heritage," she says.

"It's a good way to decide what you want to specialise in while working for the same organisation."

Hitchins says she benefitted from the mentoring and "buddy" programmes that the partnership offers new starters to rapidly acquaint them with new the partnership, and is about to become a mentor for a graduate trainee herself.

Another strong selling point was NLP's employee benefit trust, which ploughs profits back into the business for the benefit of staff, she adds.

Benefits:

- Employee benefit trust

- Contributory pension

- Staff bonus scheme

LOCAL PLANNING AUTHORITIES

STROUD DISTRICT COUNCIL

Phil Skill, head of planning at Stroud District Council, says he enjoys his job, both because he works in a converted 17th-century woollen mill overlooking a canal and a Cotswold escarpment and because of the organisation's culture and goals.

Skill has managed everything from car parks to IT projects. He was recruited eight years ago for his management experience and had no planning background. "They helped me get a planning degree. There's a culture of 'growing your own'," he says. "Half my planners come from a clerical background."

He also enjoys the challenge of proactively enabling development while protecting the district's special landscape and heritage. "We suggested housing development at Grade 1 listed Stanley Mill to finance necessary work to protect the building." And his team suggested that an M5 service station be blended into a protected landscape.

The priority the council attaches to protecting its cherished heritage particularly appeals to Skill.

Benefits:

- Subsidised gym and canteen

- £20,000 a year training budget for the planning team

- Flexible working


BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL

The job of senior planning officer at the largest local authority in the country offers invaluable opportunities, says Birmingham City Council's Joanne McCallion. "The experience you gain from being involved in significant schemes such as New Street station, the new Library of Birmingham and the Midland Metro would be difficult to come by if you were working for other local authorities."

At the authority for five years now, McCallion says she has "a very diverse workload". As well as the projects mentioned above, she has also recently dealt with the applications for a new hotel, housing and student accommodation.

"Each application has its own issues and having a varied workload means that the job never becomes mundane," she says. Unlike smaller authorities, she says, Birmingham has the advantage of having lots of in-house experts she can talk to about everything from noise issues to flood risk.

Benefits:

- Annual leave 29 days a year, increasing to 32 after five years

- Flexible working

- Continuing professional development


LONDON BOROUGH OF CROYDON

Croydon Council's development management service has the twin challenges of regenerating the urban centre in the north of the borough and protecting the green belt in the south.

Nicola Townsend, the north team leader managing ten planning officers, says she has developed her career at Croydon because of the wide variety of experience that its outer London location gives officers.

"We get a large number of interesting major developments here, which means officers are able to take on something new and expand their knowledge and experience," she says.

For example, Townsend has worked on the Morello Towers mixed-use development, including a 55-storey residential tower, close to East Croydon station. This project involved her in consideration of significant new infrastructure requirements, including a bridge over the railway line.

She also works to provide new facilities for the fast-growing borough: 33,000 people were added to its population in the ten years to 2011. This has involved liaising with the council's property developers to address a deficiency in school places, and working on the provision of a new leisure centre at Waddon. This was built in an out-of-town location, contrary to planning policy.

Addressing "real issues facing local residents" in this way is satisfying, she says.

Townsend, who became a team leader in the department after nine years at the council, says it is possible to progress your career in the borough by putting yourself forward and getting involved in the challenging applications that the council often receives.

She cites good team-working with colleagues as the second reason why she has developed her career at Croydon over the past 15 years. "I enjoy the people here. It's a very mixed office with people from different backgrounds with different perspectives. The officers here are willing to work together and help each other, which creates a positive working environment."

She says the council plays a role in creating this environment through the support it provides employees. "The culture at Croydon Council has been to spot the potential of officers and help motivate and mentor them and provide access to training, enabling them to reach their full potential."

"The development management service also has a healthy social life, with a variety of activities arranged, enabling officers to get to know each other away from the pressures of the office. It helps to be a people person here."

Benefits:

- Offices in a new flagship council headquarters

- Twenty-five days' annual leave, rising to 30

- Staff supported to take masters degrees

- A "buddy scheme" to mentor new employees.


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