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The most important moment of my planning life

The interview

Former chief planning inspector and one time RTPI president Chris Shepley wasn't always a grizzled veteran of planning, as he recalls for our young planners' issue

Chris ShepleyI was once a young planner myself. And I only achieved that status by the skin of my teeth.
I did geography at the London School of Economics (“studied” would be an exaggeration). Some years later, when I was president of the RTPI, the LSE kindly held a lunch to celebrate that honour. Professor Michael Wise, the biggest cheese when I was there, was abroad at the time. But earlier, when he was invited to the event, Wise was nonplussed. He furrowed his brow and vainly sought to dredge up some vague memory of me. He sent for my file, a painfully thin affair, and brushed off thick decades of dust. He silently scanned the contents, then returned it to its dungeon. Urged to divulge the contents, he stressed that the information was confidential, and quite rightly (and fortunately) he declined to do so. However, he did reveal that “there was nothing in the file which could have led one to anticipate the successful career which was to ensue”.
This came as no surprise.
Towards the end of my fumbling progress through the geography course, I had an interview at Manchester City Council, intending to work as a planner whilst making a brave attempt on a part-time Diploma in Town Planning at the local university. Many will know of Edgar Rose, later a professor at Aston. He was the deputy city planning officer, and he carried out the cross-examination with Tom Hughes, an extraordinarily Welshman who was only slightly less important.
I had never met such imposing figures before. I tiptoed into the office, which seemed the size of the Albert Hall, and headed nervously towards the vast desk. There was a chair, on which I supposed I should sit, and I managed the trip without too many problems.

"He then asked me a further question which went on for some considerable time. Maybe a week. I hadn't the remotest idea what he was talking about"

Edgar kindly asked me a straightforward question to open the proceedings. This required me to explain whether I had had a good journey from London, and I thought I coped with that OK. He then asked me a further question, which went on for some considerable time. Maybe a week. I hadn’t the remotest idea what he was talking about. I was able to establish that the question had come to a conclusion only when there was a silence in the room. I wondered whether I should perhaps go for a different profession. (If you’re one of the people who think that would have been a blessing, you probably haven’t got this far anyway).
I think I may have muttered something about something or other, hoping it may bear on his subject. But then, abandoning all hope of a successful career in Manchester, I said that I was afraid I didn’t really understand the question. Edgar turned to Tom Hughes, observing that he had not made a contribution so far (which was hardly surprising), and asked if he could put it another way. There followed the most memorable and important moment of my planning life.
“I’m sorry, Edgar”, lilted Tom, who may well have been the nicest man I’ve ever met. “But I’m afraid I didn’t understand the question either.” Edgar proceeded, at some length, to answer the question himself (I didn’t understand that either), then Tom lobbed me a few easy ones and I got the job, mainly for being a good listener. I spent a number of years there, came to like and admire Edgar, and learned more from my mentor John Millar than I can ever explain.
So, if you’re a young planner, feeling you have a pretty poor degree (like me), or a slow start to your career (like me) – things will probably turn out just fine. You will eventually end up as an older planner, of course, and hopefully a successful one. But let’s hope you have fun along the way. I have.
Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former chief planning inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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