The Guide to Careers in Planning 2008-09 - Talking to the public

The planner's role is inextricably tied up with the public interest. Working out what people in a neighbourhood or district want from their environment is an element of the job that brings with it challenges but also exciting opportunities.

It could be said that a planner's job would be made a lot easier if it was not necessary to deal with the public. But planners recognise that they cannot work effectively unless they engage with the local community. If public consultations are not carried out properly, it usually means problems are stored up only to emerge later.

The planning legislation imposes obligations on planning departments to ensure that people who could be affected by a particular development have their say. But there are plenty of other reasons why consulting the public is important.

"It's about building consensus and removing opposition so that each development is built for the greater good," explains Jackie Copley, a senior consultant in the Manchester office of consultants Atkins. "Buy-in and ownership of projects by the community are very important. If you don't talk to residents how can you provide for them?"

Renewal schemes are often in areas where dialogue between residents and public authorities has deteriorated. Copley has been involved in projects to revitalise Hulme in Manchester and Salford's Seedley and Langworthy area. "The idea is to let people have a voice and then produce a report to demonstrate that their views have been duly considered," she says.

In east London, excitement is growing over the 2012 Olympics. Chris Gascoigne, team leader in the London Borough of Newham's development control section, explains that the authority has to ensure relevant statutory bodies are consulted on applications for new facilities.

The Canning Town and Custom House Project was set up as a regeneration body by the council to act as a focal point for residents. The project team has established an office in the area where residents can visit, ask questions or raise concerns.

Once people are engaged, the challenge is to keep their interest. "It is up to the council to take ownership and keep people enthused about what is happening," says Stephen Timms, principal planner at the London Borough of Hillingdon, which includes most of Heathrow Airport.

Where different parties disagree over aspects of a development, planners and consultants may be asked to deploy their mediation skills. It is not easy to balance competing interests, but there is no doubt that the success of any major project relies on planners embracing public engagement.

PROFILE - JOANNE DUTTON, Principal planning officer, Congleton Borough Council

The chance to work alongside many different people is a key motivation for Joanne Dutton. As part of a team preparing a development framework for a Cheshire district, she talks to experts inside and outside her authority, other organisations and local people. "They all help to provide a better understanding of the area and can help to inspire appropriate planning policies," she says. Dutton, who studied on the University of Manchester's undergraduate planning course, has worked for two other councils and hopes to move up the local government management ladder via her career as a policy planner.

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