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Why be a public sector planner?

Words: The Planner

Our Careers Survey revealed many of the pressures of public sector planning, but we’ve also been exploring its ‘reanimation’ via a range of initiatives. We spoke to three team members from Aylesbury Vale District Council about their motivations and inspirations as public sector planners

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Q: Why did you choose to work in the public sector?

Dan Ray, Principal Planner: One of the real positives is that you are not here for any other reason other than to make the right decision that’s best for everyone. It’s not for personal benefit – it’s a societal benefit. Whereas in the private sector there are goals and aspirations for the company. Like a lot of people I fell into the job originally, but what kept me here is that 'guardian' role. You are here to balance everyone’s wants and desires and ultimately that’s what drives me. I’m trying to do the best for everyone.

Henry Allmand, Group Manager: You re always going to be the bad guy to someone – to residents who disagree in the first place, or the developers whose applications you refuse. You’re trying to resolve and mediate between sometimes diametrically opposed groups. That creates a challenge, but it’s a rewarding challenge.

Dan: You can’t be the good guy to everyone – but you can walk away knowing that, despite people's very valid concerns, you have done the right thing.

Q: What qualities does a public sector planner need to thrive in the job?

Claire Bayley, Associate Planner: Because we are a high growth area we’ve got a lot of public interest – so being able to communicate is a key skill. We need to deliver growth, but at the same time we need to protect Aylesbury Vale and make it the best place to live. A big challenge is how we communicate both aspects positively.

Henry: The people I see as the top performers are those who are relentlessly enthusiastic and eager to tackle challenges. Enthusiasm is such a big part of being a good planner  – although they are important, it’s not just about qualifications and skillset.

"It’s that ability to see new opportunities both locally and in the wider area"

Claire: It’s also the ability to look at the opportunity that comes with growth: seeing new opportunities both locally and in the wider area, while being innovative in our approaches to planning. I think officers and members are very open to looking at different types of approach to obtaining development on site. We have a big drive to look at what the future of planning is and how we can work positively with consultees and developers.

Q: ‘Innovation’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you mention the public sector. But we’re becoming increasingly aware of new approaches to ongoing challenges. Where’s the innovation in AVDC?

Dan: In response to the constraints that limit new development coming forward, you’ve got to be more open-minded and push applicants to be really innovative themselves. As the person in the middle you’re allowing that progress; if you just do the same old things, there won't be an improvement.

Henry: At a very high level, the planning system needs to be motivated to change and progress in terms of a digital revolution, and how we can make the whole system easier to navigate for everyone involved. Digital innovation and influencing systemic change is something we really focus on at AVDC, above and beyond seeking to be creative with individual planning applications.

Q: What about the way your planning team is actually organised? We’re interested in careers – what are you doing to make Aylesbury Vale a particularly rewarding or interesting place to work and learn your craft?

Claire: Our service is built very much around our staff and we support our team members at every level from graduates through to principals. For example, every officer has a buddy allocated to them, so everyone has a named colleague as a first point of contact for any technical questions. This means knowledge and expertise filters through the team and also that everyone is both a mentor and a mentee. We also have weekly slots available to anyone who feels they need advice and guidance. We run a regular case conference discussing cases that are unique or contentious. We also run monthly technical support sessions. Our officer training and development is very much guided and decided by the officers in the team.

"We’re encouraging a lot more discussion to ensure there’s a better spread of knowledge"

Dan: We don’t just rely on the knowledge and guidance of the most senior members of the team. We’re encouraging a lot more discussion generally to ensure a better spread of knowledge. Every day something new will come up and we’re geared up to share that knowledge in more proactive ways than traditional planning teams.

Claire: There’s a shortage of planners out there, particularly experienced planners. AVDC has a ‘Grow Your Own’ initiative by which we’re supported to develop our own staff as best we can. We give them a really thorough grounding.

Henry:: There’s a lot of coverage in the industry media about how downtrodden and overworked planners are. In response to that wider trend we’ve been trying to be proactive, creating a culture where people enjoy coming to work.

Q: Are public sector planning teams now competing with private sector ones for new approaches and career development?

Claire: Planning is one of those areas where we have lots to learn from everyone and there are aspects of the private sector that influence us. With our experience of delivering growth, those positive working relationships across sectors have to happen. There’s mutual respect from both sides.

Henry: We’re seeing more people who've worked almost exclusively in the private sector coming into local government. Whether it’s for the experience, the change of scenery or just to learn new skills, it's becoming much more normal to move between sectors.

Q: Given the pressures we all know exist within the public sector, why would someone make that move?

Dan: As a local authority planning officer you have more of an opportunity to influence the environment than perhaps working for a developer where you are constrained by their model. I think we are starting to get far better quality development as a result of good quality planning officers at local authority level trying to influence development.

Henry: The solutions to the problems society faces are generally found at local government level. It’s that opportunity to get involved in some really fundamentally challenging situations and doing so to improve local people’s lives.

Aylesbury Vale District Council has kindly sponsored the public sector strand of our Careers Month content.

Work for Aylesbury Vale District Council

Aylesbury Vale District Council’s planning team has been shortlisted as the Local Authority Planning Team of the Year in the RTPI Awards for Excellence in Planning.

Read more about what the council is offering to ambitious planners. If you want to find out more about the career opportunities available at AVDC please call Hannah Peacock on 01296 585271 (Mon-Fri 9.00am to 5.30pm) or email [email protected]

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