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'By gracious approval': Planning in the 2000s

Words: The Planner
RTPI 60 year charter logo

It’s 60 years since the Town Planning Institute was awarded a Royal Charter. How has planning changed in the intervening decades, and what does being a chartered member mean to planners? Matt Moody and Simon Wicks asked planners who came of age in the 2000s


Richard Cowell is assistant planning director with Birmingham City Council

I left university with a degree in human geography and started as an assistant planner with South Holland District Council in 2003. I was fortunate at the time to work across policy, development control and conservation – I had a broad exposure to all the elements of a local authority planning department.

I did my postgraduate diploma while working, then worked for a number of local authorities before coming to Birmingham in 2008 as senior development officer.

"Taking that next step to becoming a chartered planner is important – it's good to make that commitment"

Once you've done the degree and got the experience, taking that next step to becoming a chartered planner is important. If you want to progress your career and move up into more senior positions it’s a requirement in some cases, and personally as well, it's good to make that commitment and put that work into demonstrating your desire to develop yourself. The type of work I’m involved in now is very different from what I imagined the role of a planner would be. It was policy and planning applications when I started out but now it’s wider development and place-making, funding and finance.

The role of a planner in the formal sense has changed. It’s more about facilitation and enabling change. I would echo the view of those planners from the 50s and 60s that there's a lot of regulation and legislation, but that's imposed on us by the government and others. If a planner was asked what sort of system we would like, I don't think we would choose the system we are working with.


Jane Jones is principal planning officer (compliance) with Snowdonia National Park Authority 

I became chartered in December 2016 through the Special Entry Route, which ended at the end of 2016. I went through the process whilst working at Snowdonia National Park Authority where I have been employed since 2007. 

My career in planning actually commenced back in 1999. I had always had a keen interest in spatial planning during my time at university but must confess I planned to become a chartered surveyor. 

To cut a long story short, I stumbled into planning when I was offered the post as enforcement officer at South Lakeland District Council. My planning knowledge was limited and I knew very little, especially about the enforcement process but I was keen to learn and relished the challenge. It was a very steep learning curve but I gained extensive experience in a relatively short period.  In 2004, I spent a year with the Lake District National Park Authority as an enforcement planner. 

I moved to Wales in 2005 and this is when I started to seriously think about obtaining some recognition with the RTPI. Although I had a planning career, I did not really feel as if this had any useful purpose or recognition. I became a technical member in 2006 and that is where I thought my involvement with the RTPI would remain, especially as my planning experience was extensively enforcement based.  

"The fact I also chartered status as an enforcement officer was immensely satisfying and proved to me the RTPI do value all aspects of work within the planning profession"  

In 2010, I became more involved with the RTPI when I joined the RTPI Cymru Management Board (now known as the RTPI Cymru Executive Committee). I made further enquiries into becoming chartered. I was still apprehensive that my knowledge and years of experience in enforcement (and possessing a degree in land management) would be insufficient to gain chartered status. 

Following in depth discussions with the fabulous staff at the RTPI I took the plunge and started to draft up my application in 2013. The delay was purely down to work and family commitments and I confess the looming deadline to apply through the special entry route focussed my attention. 

Although I have been connected with the RTPI for some time now, becoming chartered was important to me as a personal goal/achievement. The fact I also obtained chartered status as an enforcement officer was immensely satisfying and proved to me the RTPI do value all aspects of work within the planning profession.  

When I started my career, I felt there was little recognition for planning enforcement. However, through the years the RTPI have realised the critical function planning enforcement officers provide. The National Association of Planning Enforcement (NAPE) network has being created which aims to promote the professional recognition of enforcement.  

Nevertheless, perhaps what I have learnt over the last years is that you can ‘only get out what you put in’. By this, I mean if you want to get the most out of your RTPI membership, whatever class, you must try to make a positive contribution. I was fortunate to become involved with RTPI Cymru where my involvement has opened up networking opportunities reaching far and wide. It has also provided an opportunity to keep up to date with national policy/consultations. I have also made many like-minded new friends along the way. By being actively involved, it has certainly enhanced my career, as well as my knowledge. 


Meeta Kaur is a partner with Town Legal LLP

I was fortunate enough to start my career as a graduate planner at Westminster, where I became chartered in 2000. As well as feeling like the most exciting place to work in the country, I had the good fortune of working with a bunch of capable, knowledgeable and engaged local authority planners right from the outset.

However, as my focus became enforcement, I realised I had to have a thorough grasp of the statutory planning framework, and ultimately developed a strong interest in planning law. I decided to pursue a legal career in private practice. I still identify strongly as a town planner and continue to be involved in the activities of the RTPI, despite having been a planning lawyer for some years now.

"I realised I had to have a thorough grasp of the statutory planning framework, and ultimately developed a strong interest in planning law"

The planning system was subject to some degree of change in the early years of my career, but that pales into insignificance when compared to the constant and accelerating rate of tinkering over the last decade. This has often seemed to bring little discernible benefit, other than making those on all sides equally disgruntled!

The cuts to local planning authority funding in recent years are in stark contrast to my initial years as a local authority planner, even though the funding situation then was not ideal either.

These and other factors have contributed to a divide between private and public sectors which didn’t seem to exist when I started working. There seems to be a growing recognition of this and moves are afoot in various quarters to foster the return to a ‘one profession’ attitude and approach, which I see as a hugely positive sign for the future of the profession.


Colin Lavety is planning director with Barton Willmore

How did you get into planning?

I fell into it to be honest! After studying Geography at the University of Glasgow I spent over a year travelling around Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. Upon returning a friend made me aware of a Planning Technician role that was being advertised at East Dunbartonshire. I applied, and the rest is history! I became chartered in 2006.

Is your career progressing as you expected?

Yes. I spent a really rewarding five years at a local authority ‘learning the trade’ so to speak, but I’ve always been ambitious and was always curious as to what life would be like in the private sector, and since moving to the world of consultancy in 2006 I’ve stayed there. When I was starting out, the message from experienced planners was to secure your MRTPI status, as that was the stepping stone to more senior roles, and that’s how it turned out for me.

What’s the biggest challenge for you in your professional life? And what gives you a sense of reward?

As a director, I take overall responsibility for business development and winning new work but also need to devote time each day for working on key projects and supporting the wider team, so the biggest challenge for me is balancing the time required to do them all. Add to that a young family (I have three kids under six!), and achieving a happy work/life balance can be challenging... but seeing high profile projects like the Aberdeen South Harbour, which we acted as planning consultants on, being delivered on the ground and being able to take pride in the fact that I played a part in that is satisfying.

"There are too many projects which are being stalled due to barriers in the application process which simply shouldn’t be there"

If you could change one thing about the profession, what would it be?

Lots of things! But the one I see most often is the classic “us and them” mentality which still rears its head when negotiating with planning authorities. It’s a clichéd answer I know, but I think there are too many projects – particularly large housing and infrastructure projects – which are being stalled due to barriers in the application process which simply shouldn’t be there. Having experience of both sides of the fence, there needs to be more working together – government, local authorities and developers – to make things happen.

How do you see the profession evolving in the future?

It’s clear to see that the whole planning process is going to become increasingly focussed on the use of digital media and in particular, using social media as a means to improving engagement with local communities. This can only be a good thing – it has been a big challenge, now and in the past, to get younger generations to engage in the planning process.


Ann MacSween is head of casework for Historic Environment Scotland (HES)

What was your profession before you became a planner?

I studied prehistoric archaeology at University of Edinburgh and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford, specialising in ceramics. Before joining Historic Environment Scotland I worked for AOC Scotland, an archaeological consultancy based in Edinburgh, as artefacts manager, followed by a few years as a consultant. 

Why did you then decide to take a planning qualification?

I joined HES’s predecessor body Historic Scotland 20 years ago, in 1999. Much of my work was around designating scheduled monuments and advising on changes to scheduled monuments. By the mid 2000s, more of my time was spent considering our advice to planning authorities on buildings, battlefields, and Inventory gardens and designed landscapes and I enrolled for a masters in urban and regional planning at Heriot Watt University to widen my planning knowledge. Of particular value to my job was the urban design module, and also the research for my dissertation on conservation area management.  

When did you become chartered, and who was your first employer as a chartered planner?

I graduated from Heriot Watt in 2008 and immediately started working towards becoming a chartered planner. I was working at Historic Scotland at the time and found that the application process was a good discipline, particularly the focus on being a reflective practitioner, something that I continue to find useful.

What was it like being a planner in the decade in which you started your planning career?

In the 2000s we were very conscious that the historic environment needed to be better integrated into policy development and into the early stages of the development management process – ‘mainstreaming the historic environment’ was a key objective. Our other focus was on how to make our decision-making processes more transparent – this resulted in the development of guidance on a range of topics from assessing the impact of change on the setting of an asset, to extending listed buildings. Our focus was very much on getting our processes right.  

"The biggest change that I have seen as a heritage professional working in planning is a general acceptance of the contribution that the historic environment makes to place-making"

How does it compare to being a planner today?

HES’s planning service is much more outward-facing compared to 10 years ago. Along with local authorities and other key agencies, we have been reporting on the performance of our planning service annually to Scottish Government since 2011. Our reporting includes a range of case studies and I think that through this reporting, HES’s role as lead body on the historic environment in Scotland is better understood. Compared with a decade ago, our focus within planning is much more on partnership working, both strengthening current partnerships and developing new ones.

What's the biggest change you've seen in the planning profession over your career?

The biggest change that I have seen as a heritage professional working in planning is a general acceptance of the contribution that the historic environment makes, for example to place-making, the tourist economy, and public health. I find that I have less need to use my set piece on why the historic environment is important, which is all to the good!

How do you see the planning profession evolving in the future?

I think that there is a lot to look forward to. I am particularly enthusiastic about the opportunities for better cross-disciplinary working to tackle issues such as the impacts of climate change. I am also interested in how technology will help us to identify more efficient and effective ways of sharing information so that all participants in the planning system can easily access the information that they need. In my working life I have already seen massive change in how we communicate, so I am prepared to be surprised!