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Luck, chance and keeping common-sense dancing

Man running up a staircase

Chris Shepley recalls his "unorthodox" route to career success and delivers pearls of wisdom to young planners

Chris ShepleyAssiduous readers will both remember that, in the Young Planners edition of The Planner in 2014, I wrote about the faltering start to my career, my hopeless performance at interview, and the good fortune that led to my gaining employment as a planner.

The editor advised me of the recurrence of the Young Planners format, which is cool, and thought I might write a column that the whippersnappers (his word, but he meant it kindly) would enjoy. I protested that this was something I very much attempted to do every month, feeling that they were every bit as capable of making sense of my efforts as their older colleagues; but nonetheless I thought I’d try to explain how I got from that dreadful interview to where I am today, which is in front of a computer wondering how on earth I got to where I am today.

Well, I was, like, Omigod (I understand that’s the kind of language you young people like), I was catapulted into the heady world of the Manchester City Planning Department. My advice is to work with good people, if you can find any, which I very much did – and I sought to absorb wisdom and deliver what, so far as I could discern, seemed to be required. This appeared to work, even without the aid of targets, appraisals and performance related pay, and somehow I moved on up.

"Broadening your horizons seems like a luxury - but it's not. Bosses - help your people fly"

But as things progressed, two things happened which made a difference. The first was that John Millar, a great man who was the city planning officer (and RTPI president) at the time, put me forward, entirely without my knowledge, for an RTPI committee. I slowly got more involved, and developed a much wider interest in, and knowledge of, planning. I would recommend anyone to do that. But I know it’s tough in the modern, high-speed world of the local planning authority and in the dense jungle of the private sector, the cut-throat glades of academe, and the foggy frenzy of CLG. Broadening your horizons seems like a luxury – but it’s not. Bosses – help your people to fly.

Secondly I took a less orthodox route to success, which began when some of us put together a satirical review at the office Christmas party. Writing, as I did (to the tune of Bridge Over Troubled Water), a jolly number called ‘There’s No Towel In The Ladies’ Toilet’, might seem an unlikely route to becoming chief planning inspector. Another of my masterworks was the (grossly unfair) “I’ve got the Town and Country Planning Association Blues / It seems whatever you say to them you’re bound to lose/Whatever the problem is that’s getting you down/All that they can think of is a bloody New Town”.

All this led eventually to Grotton – articles, books and a roadshow that toured the nation and made people laugh. So grateful were they for this that they voted for me at elections and like, Omigod again, I got to be President, Chief Planning Inspector and even a columnist for this great journal. The sense of the ridiculous that I developed and honed through Grotton has been particularly useful since this government started (to such minuscule beneficial effect) to muck about with the planning system.

I don’t know if this strange story provides much help to the young whippersnapper embarking on his or her journey to success. Luck, chance and a sense of humour seem to have got me where I am today. It also helps that I really believe in the benefits of planning, and I really do care about the issues we tackle. Even if I make fun of it all in these pages, I do so with the aim of making a serious point congenially. I aspire, unworthily, to match Clive James’s brilliant description of humour as “common sense dancing”.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector



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