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What does it take to be a planner?

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Angela Cornell, from Fisher German, is a chartered town planner working in the private sector who is working every day to ensure new developments are built well. Here she explains her role and what it takes to make it in a profession that works in the public interest.

The UK today is an ever-changing landscape, quite literally. New developments are springing up every day, in both rural and urban areas, including large housing estates, land conversions or small plots.  At the start of building new developments, it may seem like the beginning of the process but in reality, months of hard work have already taken place before any foundations are laid.

What does a planner actually do?

Whether in a rural or urban location, the planner is there to make sustainable development proposals a reality. Building developers, who are seeking to build a new housing estate for example, will first have to put a planning application forward to the local planning authority for approval. A planner, who works for the developer, is there to ensure the application is successful.

A planner like Angela (pictured, right), must address a number of constraints before submitting the application. “As a planner, we are there to coordinate the planning process," she says. "We have to look all the constraints on a site, conduct surveys and ensure we have addressed all the problems that could affect a planning application for our client. We are very much the middle man between our client (the developer) and the council.”

Initial development plans might have to change due to constraints and it’s up to the planners to strike a happy balance between the initial proposal and what’s realistically achievable. Planners take full responsibility for the proposal and work to ensure that both the client and the local authority are satisfied.

Everyday factors to consider in planning

When a developer identifies a site they wish to build upon or convert, it’s over to the planner to tackle problems and make the development happen. Angela explains: “When we initially visit a site, very often it’s obvious that the development proposal will have to be altered due to a number of factors on the site.”

Constraints on a site can include:

  • protected/listing buildings already on the land
  • drainage and flood risk
  • contamination
  • ecology
  • highways and transportation.

"It’s the landscape and visual impact of a development that is the most challenging with every project because it’s so subjective"

The role of the planner now is to act as the project manager as well as problem solver. They will coordinate surveyors who will assess the application and the land and then weigh up the issues identified and make recommendations. However, one of the more difficult limitations to tackle may seem like the most trivial, as Angela explains: “It’s the landscape and visual impact of a development that is the most challenging with every project because it’s so subjective. While the developers and I might look at a plan and not see anything wrong, the local council or members of the public might think planned buildings stand out too much or ruin the landscape”

It’s here where planners must use their negotiation skills.

Challenges and the art of negotiation

A planner has to use their negotiation skills every working day and in various situations. Once all the initial surveying of a site is complete, the initial development plan still may have to change due to issues arising from the surveyors.

“In some cases the development site will need to be cut short, extended or the plan altered in some way. We have to take constraints into consideration and advise our clients on what they can achieve. Any changes due to listed building, heritage sites and protected land for example will be fed into the final plan and design we submit”, says Angela.

Once the development plans are finalised with the client, it’s up to the planner to form their professional opinion on the quality of the proposal, put all the painstaking work together into one report and submit their final planning application to the council.

"Being a planner is very varied. It’s all about negotiation, patience and organisation"

Planners take responsibility for the development application from start to finish. However even after the application is submitted, the planner still may have a part to play says Angela: “In some cases the local authority may reject the application due to one or two factors, or just completely reject it out of hand. The developer then has the option to appeal, which we again have to manage.”

The planner is involved in every aspect of the application from start to finish. Planners like Angela are there to coordinate the whole process, negotiate with key stakeholders and keep their client informed.

Key skills of a successful planner

So what sort of skills do Angela and planners like her need to utilise every day?

  • Impeccable negotiation skills
  • Tenacity and taking rejection as a challenge
  • Clear communication
  • Strategic thinking and clear judgment
  • Organisational skills

“Being a planner is very varied. It’s all about negotiation, patience and organisation. We play the middle man between the developer and the local community. I think the main challenge of my role is keeping the client happy throughout the whole process.”

Angela Cornell MRTPI is an Associate Partner from Fisher German, a national firm of chartered surveyors and specialist property consultants

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