INTERVIEW: Man with a mission

Too many planners are not achieving their potential and should be given a chance to prove they are people who make things happen, Sean Egan tells Rosie Niven.

Think of Teesside and images of sprawling chemical works, power stations and clouds of smog may come to mind. But Sean Egan would argue that the Tees riverfront has as much regeneration potential as Newcastle Quayside or Manchester's canalside quarter.

Changing the perception of the region has been one of Egan's main concerns since he took up his post at urban regeneration company Tees Valley Regeneration (TVR) earlier this year. "The problem with Teesside is that it has this massive stigma and the local people have quite low aspirations because of this," he explains. "But why should they? Why can't we have the best designers, architects and builders here in Middlesbrough?"

As project director leading the regeneration of the Greater Middlehaven site, Egan will oversee the redevelopment of 100ha of docklands which have remained dormant for more than two decades. He is understandably excited about the prospect. "As a 29-year-old, leading decisions on this is flattering and enjoyable. It is the dream job I never for a minute thought I'd get at this stage in my career."

Greater Middlehaven, one of five major projects planned by TVR, reached its first major milestone last month with the appointment of Alsop Architects, the firm behind Peckham Library and the bid to turn Barnsley into a Tuscan hill town. "We wanted to challenge the norm," explains Egan. "Alsop is very refreshing to work with. It is aware of the cynical press it has had in the past and is now focusing not just on drawing pretty blobs on stilts but on actually delivering these schemes."

Egan studied civil engineering initially but decided against an engineering career. "After two or three years the number-crunching was wearing me down," he recalls. "It just wasn't for me." He discovered planning during the final year of his course, when he did an environmental module, and went on to take a planning diploma.

After leaving university, he spent three years in local authority planning before moving to consultancy Entec UK. He says that he benefited greatly from his time as a council planner, which consisted of stints at the Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit and Newcastle City Council, where he worked on the authority's flagship Going for Growth project.

He argues that planners without council experience are at a disadvantage.

"I think that everyone needs a local authority background to progress in planning," he says. "I would not have liked to have gone straight into consultancy because I learned everything I knew about planning from a local authority background. I would not have swapped it for the world."

Yet he was almost put off council planning after doing work experience at his local authority as a 17-year-old. "It was so mundane and everyone seemed like they were doing the job because they had to, not because they wanted to," he recalls. "Everyone has memories of a dodgy work experience that scars them for life. That was mine."

Having become project director on a high-profile regeneration scheme just five years into his career, he is conscious that many other deserving young planners have been less fortunate in their attempts to progress.

"I have always had a bee in my bonnet about this acceptance in the planning profession that you've got to serve your time," he reveals. "Other professions don't see it in that way. To move up the ladder in councils there are so many bars in your way. You basically have to wait for someone to retire before you move up, and I found that to be particularly frustrating."

Based on his experience, he is critical of the lack of awareness of planning as a profession in schools. "Planning doesn't sell itself to the school leaver," he says. "For the average man on the street, if you say 'I'm a planner', he'll think you were the miserable sod at the council who refused planning permission for his garage." However, getting through to career officers about the benefits of a planning career is only half the battle, he says.

He argues that pupils also need to be made more aware of the contribution planners make to the urban environment, and sees geography lessons as the ideal vehicle. "I learned about Washington New Town in geography and thought it was interesting how it had developed. However, I never made the link between that and planning. If a class is doing a project on new towns, it needs to be pitched as the planning part of the geography course so that pupils make that link."

Another gripe for Egan is how current planning guidance supposedly geared up to encourage regeneration can actually make it more difficult in some cases. He suggests that PPG6 can undermine attempts to use supermarkets as a catalyst for regeneration. But his main complaint relates to policies discouraging greenfield development in PPG3.

This approach can encourage developers to demolish vacant properties instead of bringing them back into use, he claims. "I've seen examples of this all over the place," he says. "I even know of situations where owners have been approached by developers. They would argue that it is the PPG3 restrictions that are leading them to do this. It's development, but it's not regeneration."

Egan describes his current position as "the kind of job I always felt planning was about". He believes that as all-rounders, planners are well placed to lead projects like Greater Middlehaven. "It is almost like a complicated version of a classic student planning project," he claims.

He also points out that Teesside has wonderful natural assets that are often overlooked. The area's industrial image belies the fact that the Cleveland Hills are just a ten-minute drive from Middlesbrough.

It is important not to reject the area's industrial past, he adds. "We can't turn our back on our traditional industries just because they're not sexy," he says. "At the end of the day they provide really good jobs for what is essentially a working industrial area. We shouldn't be ashamed and embarrassed about our industrial heritage. We should be proud of it."

Egan rejects the view that planners are not visionary. In his view, many planners are, but are stuck in positions where they are not allowed to realise their potential.

"It pains me to see that not all regeneration projects are planning-led and that planners are often seen as an obstacle," he says. "Why should we be seen as people who put hurdles in the way? We should be seen as the people who make things happen."

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CAREER DETAILS

Age: 29.

Family: Married.

Education: BEng in civil engineering, University of Liverpool;

postgraduate diploma in town and regional planning and master of civic

design, University of Liverpool.

Career: Strategic planning officer, Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit,

1998-99; planning officer, Newcastle City Council, 1999-2001; senior

planning consultant, Entec UK, 2001-03; project director, Tees Valley

Regeneration, 2003 to date.

Other roles: Member of RTPI and Urban Design Group.

Hobbies: Sports, music, architecture, cars, travelling, eating out.

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