We must find work for the planning class of 2020, by Graeme Bell

We were planning. A reunion that is. Fifty years on from our graduation from the Leeds School of Town Planning, it was to be unfamiliar faces in familiar places.

The plan was to revisit Whitelocks pub for a few pints to swap stories. But the reunion is a Covid casualty and the class of 1970 will not now get to reminisce about catching mice in rented terraced houses, studying into the night fortified by Jack Daniels and the study tour to Poland which entailed travelling through East Berlin on the train with Russian machine guns trained on the doors. 

We might have also reflected on how quickly 50 years have flown by and, as we review the current situation, how fortunate we were to get good positions in our chosen profession. Back then, four of us wrote to Warwickshire County Council out of the blue and asked for jobs. The Leeds Four were rewarded with interviews and we were all offered posts as planning assistants. As they say on Strictly, it was the start of a great journey!

Hundreds of graduates emerging from planning schools now are entering what is described as the worst jobs market in a generation, with graduate recruitment expected to fall by three-quarters. To many of these young people who have devoted years (and paid out serious money) to become town planners, we can only imagine their disappointment as their career hits the buffers before it has even begun. 

For beginners, there’s also the problem that the jobs market will shortly be flooded with planners with work experience, as both public and private employers make staff redundant as the government furlough scheme tapers off. The New Economics Foundation think tank predicts one in six jobs in Britain could be lost. It’s going to be tough for graduates to get their first break competing against planners who can hit the ground running.

The Government has trumpeted a new Kickstart scheme to get 16-24 year olds into work as part of a £2bn jobs package. Whilst any help is welcome, the indications are this scheme is targeted towards lower-skilled jobs currently undertaken by migrant workers in agriculture, the hospitality industry and the care sector. 

So what’s to be done for the class of 2020? When 30 years ago there were no jobs going, the government-sponsored Community Programme (CP) operated by councils, NGOs and others offered employment - albeit temporary and low-wage - as a short-term measure. Much good work was achieved. It also enabled many to step up into permanent jobs when things improved, with some who started on CP now in senior positions in planning and development. 

Planning education equips individuals with a wide skillset suitable for a host of jobs. Graduates could tackle the whole environmental spectrum, from practical work to new jobs in the green economy or climate change mitigation. Projects which improve living conditions for those living in high-density developments by upgrading green spaces that could improve mental health would be timely, for example. These positions could grow into high wage jobs in new companies with great prospects.

And, whilst government always sees things from the Westminster bubble, we know that the demand for employment will be greatest in the areas that are always the worst to be hit. Graduates from my alma mater and all the other UK planning schools have so much to offer. We need a new Community Programme offering meaningful paid work to help deliver what communities need in this new normal.

We cannot afford to lose the commitment, talent, enthusiasm and energy of all those planners from the class of 2020.  

Graeme Bell OBE is a vice president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

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