Why we need Planning “Champions”

DSCN0268In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning  locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.

This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.

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Why being a Planner is not all bad!

DSCN0268Last month I was asked if I would do the Q&A feature for the April issue of The Planner, an interesting idea as I have never really followed a traditional career path in planning, even though I have consciously maintained my membership. Indeed I only spent 12 months working as a planning consultant in a ‘traditional’ planning job. Since then all my jobs have had an element of town planning about them – I carried out research and lectured in planning, transport and housing issues at UWE; I ran an urban regeneration project in Hartcliffe in South Bristol; led and managed a sustainable development charity and was a local politician for 8 years.

But above all I am a planner and a policy person with an interest in politics, that’s what I do and enjoy doing in whatever role I might play!

I’d recommend planning to anyone as a great and diverse career with a range of opportunities. Doing a planning degree in the 1980s was a brilliant time to do it, so many challenges, and so many opportunities on completion of my degree. Now might be very different, but the challenges are still there and so are the opportunities if you look beyond the traditional!

Below is the full text of my responses to the questions I was asked.

1. What do you currently do?

I am currently taking a year out from work after being made redundant from my previous job as Director of Policy & Strategy at Business West (a local Chamber of Commerce and business representation organisation). I am using this as a positive opportunity to improve my knowledge and challenge myself. I am now half way through a taught MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol. A truly fascinating and challenging experience at my age!

2. If I wasn’t in planning, I’d probably be….

Either a politician or I’d work for a think tank. I spent 8 years as a local councillor in Bristol and enjoyed many of the challenges but would love to have had a go at the national stage, to try and bring some sense to the planning and sustainability debate. Or I would use my policy knowledge to help inform the debate on a range of issues from a national or local think tank. My other plan, if all else fails, is to run a café, B&B and/or cattery somewhere on the coast in Pembrokeshire!

3. What has been your biggest career challenge to date?

That’s a tricky one, there are so many in each role I have had. Chairing planning committees was always both challenging and entertaining, trying to keep the debate to planning issues and coming to compromise/solutions on some very difficult schemes often in the face of much public protest. But actually I’d probably say that as I have been something of a champion for sustainable development over the years, both as a politician and in work roles (such as running a local sustainability charity), this has been by far the greatest challenge I have faced. I started out in this area of work back in the days of the Rio Summit (1992) when we in the UK didn’t really take it seriously as an issue, so it was tough getting sustainability and climate change onto the council agenda and to raise the profile locally when no one seemed to think it was important. I think the challenge still remains now on so many levels even though progress has been made.

4. What attracted you to the profession?

A fascination with cities and how they work – the urban realm, buildings, spaces and connections and how we make places work for people has always been an interest, encouraged by a geography teacher and by studying urban morphology as a school project. That was enough to make me decide to do a planning degree and the rest is history really – I went on to teach/research planning and housing at UWE in Bristol and all my jobs since then have had a focus on cities, planning, regeneration, transport and sustainability in some way.

5. What single piece of advice would you give someone starting out in a career in planning?

Enjoy it – it’s a brilliant career with so many different opportunities to learn and develop your skills, ideas and experience. One of the things I have enjoyed most about studying and working in the planning arena is that diversity of opportunity. A planning degree prepares you for a whole range of career destinations and opportunities so think flexibly about your career and about what you have to offer. It’s rarely if ever boring being involved in planning!

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

Easy – public perception! It never ceases to amaze me how warped most peoples view is of planning and planners is and the misconceptions they hold about planning, mostly encouraged by negative media coverage and politics in my view. So I guess the serious answer is I would improve our ability to communicate as a profession, to produce information in a way that brings people along with us and showcases the best of planning, whilst at the same time admitting mistakes and learning from what hasn’t worked. I think this would also require some serious education in Parliament and Whitehall so those taking decisions about the planning system and planning in general had a more informed outlook.


Q&A with Tessa Coombes – The Planner April 2014