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Career development: Public or private?

Choice of directions

Should you aim to work in the public or private sector as a newly qualified planner? We look at some of the pros and cons of each

According to its 2014 membership survey, half of RTPI members work in local government, more than a fifth (22 per cent) for private consultancies and 10 per cent are self-employed. There are also planners in academia, the third sector, developers, and so on.
The proportion of planners in local government is relatively stable, although anecdotal evidence suggests that more newly qualified planners are now heading to the private sector, where there are perceived to be better salaries and career opportunities.
Should you go public or private at the outset of your career? We invited three young planners to tell us how they find working in their chosen sector.

Katrine Dean - Development management

Katrine Dean

Katrine's career to date

2009 Finished postgraduate, University of Manchester
2009-10 Intern, Glasgow Housing Association
2010-14 Assistant planner, Renfrewhsire Council
March 2014-present Planning officer, London Borough of Camden

Starting out

Development management is nothing like I had imagined planning to be at university, where my course was geared mainly towards policy formulation and project work, writes KatrineI had always thought of planning at a more strategic level. But I graduated during the recession and went into development management in the public sector circumstantially.
Graduate planner jobs were like gold dust in Scotland. I worked as an unpaid intern for six months at the Glasgow Housing Association, before my first paid job in development management at Renfrewshire Council. I feel my work experience and membership of Planning Aid and Women in Property put me ahead of other candidates at the time.
Development management involves assessing applications and providing advice to developers and the public on the development potential of sites. It is fast paced, varied and involves dealing with a substantial caseload. There are site visits, too, and it is enjoyable to get out of the office.

Skills development

The highlight is working on complex and major developments, and being involved in project work. Seeing a plot of land on a site visit before and after development really makes you proud to be a planner and gives you job satisfaction. It’s important for young planners to show their initiative and capability by asking their superiors to be involved in complex projects, in order to develop knowledge and skills.
At Renfrewshire Council, I also enjoyed being involved in process and service improvement, which allowed me to be creative. Teamwork, relationship-building and project management are among the other valuable skills that planners can pick up in development management.


The biggest challenge has been dealing with budget cuts in the public sector, which have led to fewer staff doing a large volume of work. The loss of colleagues also means a loss of important specialist in-house expertise.

“The biggest challenge has been dealing with budget cuts in the public sector”

A good starting point

Development management is a great place to learn about planning. You use the planning framework every day, and become very familiar with legislation. It teaches you to be analytical and to think like a planner. I have also acquired an abundance of transferable skills, especially negotiation and organisation.
I would encourage young planners to spend at least two years in development management. It really is important to know what happens to a planning application once it has been put together. The knowledge base and transferable skills of a development control planner are invaluable.

Zenab Haji-Ismail - Public sector policy planning

Zenab Haji-Ismail
Zenab's career to date
2012 Finished postgraduate, Cardiff University
2012 Intern, GL Hearn
2012 – 13 Energy efficiency assistant manager, Ofgem
2013 – 14 Planning obligations officer, London Borough of Camden

Starting out

I fell into my career in the public sector, writes Zenab. It began with work experience at GL Hearn on the community infrastructure levy (CIL). Following brief employment at Ofgem, I was taken on as a CIL/Section106 Officer at Camden. I chose to go into the public sector because CIL was a relatively new piece of legislation, so it was both an opportunity to put together a CIL charging schedule and a system to manage monitoring and collection in a Central London borough. 

Skills development

I have gained a deeper appreciation of the data and evidence used to inform local policies. I engage with a wide variety of stakeholders at an early stage and I’m exposed to ‘politics’ with a small ‘p’ – I have developed an appreciation of the political sensitivities of the planning system, the changing nature of planning policy and dealing with different stakeholders, especially finance officers, early in my career.


Planning legislation is ever-changing nationally. Some of these changes may be sensitive locally, but this is a great opportunity; for the planning policy team is at the forefront of responding to these. There are time and resource pressures and a need to prioritise what realistically can be done. At the same time there are ample opportunities for professional development. There are no barriers to what you can achieve if you are motivated.

“I have developed an appreciation of the political sensitivities of the planning system”

What next?

My experience to date has set a strong foundation; I have had exposure to a breadth of planning experience and an opportunity to project manage the monitoring and collection of CIL and S106 obligations. It’s been very rewarding. I will now seek to move across to a planning team internally to continue gaining a variety of experience before making a decision on which area of planning I would like to specialise in.

Deborah Baker - From public to private
Deborah's career to date
2010 Finished postgraduate, University of Manchester
2008-10 Assistant planning officer, Salford City Council
2010–12 Planner, Nathaniel Lichfield Planning
2012– 14 Planning  officer, Cheshire East Council
September 2014-Present Planner, Indigo Planning

Similarities between public and private

The caricature of the slow-paced planning officer whiling away the days to retirement has never been true. As the recession advanced, the councils I worked for became more streamlined and innovative. I’ve met committed, dynamic and focused colleagues and mentors in both sectors, and have worked equally hard on projects that were fulfilling, challenging and subject to demanding deadlines. 


The work-life blend varies, with most councils offering flexitime as a given. This is much less so in the private sector, although flexibility is given in special circumstances. The benefit is that you always have a support network of colleagues on hand to give and seek advice.
Opportunities for career progression tend to be less frequent in the public sector owing to adherence to strict staff structures that must be approved by council members. The private sector is better able to reward good performance.
The private sector also offers many opportunities to get involved in initiatives beyond the day job. For example, business development activities and networking 
will enhance your skills while developing the company’s profile. 
Every role is what you make it. I’ve enjoyed working in both sectors because of the quality of work and the people I’ve worked with. 

How is working in the private sector? 

Private sector work is not all about submitting applications. It’s about strategising, considering appropriate land uses and adding value by giving a professional opinion. This requires in-depth knowledge of current and emerging policy, and the confidence to present and back up my recommendations. Devolving responsibility down through the organisation in this way is efficient and builds staff abilities.
If officers were similarly empowered – for example, in giving pre-application advice – it would give developers more certainty and reduce costly renegotiation. More money could be directed to increasing the quality of the proposed development. 
In my current role I am entrusted with managing all aspects of a project, including delivering within budget. Spreading this commercial project management mindset to all levels of council officers might help address the public sector resourcing crisis, and reduce the frequency of restructuring.

How has working in both private and public sectors helped your development?

It has given me an appreciation of the challenges faced by council officers, such as time pressures, accountability to councillors and managing the expectations of the public. In my previous role as a council officer with private sector experience I understood the pressures on consultants, particularly in relation to the cost implications of delays. As a result, I seek to build collaborative relationships with officers. It’s less frustrating than maintaining an adversarial approach, and achieves better results for the developer and the authority.