Young planner on the up

Young Planner of the Year winner Susannah Guest is heading for Vegas.

RTPI winner: Susannah Guest
RTPI winner: Susannah Guest

It has been said that for a loser, Las Vegas is the meanest town on earth.

Susannah Guest need not worry. After scooping this year's RTPI Young Planner of the Year award, she will be heading to the gambling capital of the world and the American Planning Association's (APA) 100th national planning conference.

Luck has nothing to do with Guest's success in the competition, which also offers a free place at the Planning Summer School. "She is a fantastic manager," says Simon Farmer, head of the policy unit at the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), her employer for the past seven years. "Her management ability, drive and enthusiasm mean that she could go an awfully long way."

Just turned 31, Guest already leads a group of 14 planning officers at PINS. Modest about her own achievements, she concentrates on explaining her work heading the planning officers unit. On top of supporting the work of inspectors, her team is helping government regional offices to deliver the reformed development plan system.

From this vantage point, she sees an industry in transition. "Planning has a more outward focus," she finds. "It's about engaging with community stakeholders and planning with people rather than for them. It used to be very functional and bogged down. Now it's all about spatial planning. Senior planners would probably say that this has always been the case, but I tend to think it was a little insular and the links between sectors didn't always seem real."

After studying environmental and resource management at the University of Hull, Guest began her career in her home town of Harrogate on a work experience placement in the borough council's planning department. "It helped me realise that I really wanted to be involved in this subject," she says.

She went on to take a masters degree at Cardiff University. Among her mentors was visiting lecturer and former chief planning inspector Stephen Crow, who died last December. Guest credits him as an inspiration. "He was my first boss when I became a research assistant at Cardiff and we worked together early on at PINS. He was a truly inspirational figure, hugely knowledgeable with a unique sense of humour."

Crow would be proud of her rise through the ranks at PINS. Starting as a graduate planner, she won promotion to higher planning officer status. Last year saw further progression to senior planning officer. "I work all over the place. One minute I am looking at London, working on high-profile housing projects where there is a lot of political pressure to deliver. The next day I could be looking at completely different problems in national parks."

Guest has remained involved with academic research as a PINS representative on the steering group for the University of the West of England's distance learning course in spatial planning. She also makes a contribution to the RTPI as a trained assessor on its assessment of professional competence scheme. Working alongside such organisations as the Planning Advisory Service, the Planning Officers Society, the Welsh Assembly and the DCLG on policy development has ensured a varied start to her career.

But her bread and butter is PINS. "The inspectorate is all about being impartial and looking at sustainability, but it is also about making difficult decisions and finding the best way to see them through. When you are talking about major infrastructure you are taking responsibility and giving a helping hand through those decisions," she explains.

That approach extends to getting the most out of the staff in her team. Guest helps supervise two trainees as part of the Tomorrow's Planners programme to bring more black and minority ethnic staff into the profession. It speaks volumes that she is keener to mention how pleased she was when one of them won the PATH Trainee of the Year award in 2006. "I have worked hard and genuinely enjoy my job. But I also have a young, driven and motivated team around me," she says.

She will need their support in what promises to be a busy year ahead. As part of her RTPI prize, Guest is due to give a short presentation on her APA conference experiences at the Planning Summer School in St Andrews in September. She admits to apprehension about public speaking. Such doubts do not extend to her peers. Farmer shows little surprise at her success in the young planner poll. "She is a fantastic person, a great manager and very incisive," he reports.

Guest reveals one of the factors that fuels her enthusiasm. "I have a fascination for buildings," she reveals. "Often I am just walking down the road somewhere and look up and see a building in perfect proportion with its surroundings. I have to step back and admire how great it looks. People are often too busy to notice these things."

"Places change so quickly now. Without wanting to be disrespectful to senior members of the profession, planning needs young people to get involved in the changes ahead, drawing them together and helping to shape what happens."

Age: 31
Education: BSc in environmental and resource management, University of
Hull; MSc in city and regional planning, Cardiff University
Interests: Live music, ballroom and Latin dancing, reading
2007: Senior planning officer, Planning Inspectorate (PINS)
2003: Higher planning officer, PINS
2001: Graduate planner, PINS
2000: Research assistant, Cardiff University
1999: Work experience at Harrogate Borough Council and York City Council

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