The ninth in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.
Nikola Miller, Young Planner of the Year 2012, Smiths Gore, Edinburgh
My first Scottish interview and the first Young Planner interview, one of 2 this year, the other shortly from Wales! I met Nikola at the American Planning Association Convention in Los Angeles which she was attending as part of her prize for winning the Young Planner of the Year 2012 competition. Her unbridled enthusiasm for life and planning was both exhilarating and exhausting and she had a particular appetite for community engagement. Her YP 2012 presentation to GA will I am sure be very good.
So what whetted your appetite first to become a planner Nikola?
"I've always had an interest in people and places and initially studied geography at St. Andrews from 2001 with a particular interest in Human Geography and working with people. My uncle is a planner, Head of Planning at North Ayrshire Council, so it's his fault (!) and I had a placement there before taking a 1 year Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at Heriot-Watt University.
As part of the course there was a module with presentations from various planners in practice. A presentation from one of GVA Grimley's planners impressed me and prompted me to apply for a placement over the Easter break. After working there for 3 weeks, GVA then took me on for a third of my time whilst I completed my studies, and thereafter I worked for GVA for the first 5 years of my career. My Master's dissertation was on community engagement, and this interest became a focus of my work at GVA and also in my secondment to Planning Aid for Scotland.
During my time at GVA I was elected MRTPI in 2008 and went on to a 14 month secondment as Development Officer for Planning Aid for Scotland in 2010, developing and delivering training on planning to other professionals, community members, children and young people. I was then made redundant in 2011 as a result of the persistent recession and moved on to work for a developer Miller Developments before joining Smiths Gore towards the end of 2011. When I got the job at Smiths Gore it helped having lots of varied experience in consultancy, as a developer, and in working within the voluntary sector."
How did you first become involved in the RTPI?
"I first became involved in the RTPI when I attended a Chapter Xmas Quiz back in 2005; I became a member of the Edinburgh, Lothian, Borders and Fife Chapter Committee initially as a student, then as a regular member, and now as Chapter Convenor for the past 3 years. As Chapter Convenor I coordinate the committee to arrange CPD events for RTPI members, and also sit on the RTPI Scottish Executive Committee. I half considered giving everybody a break from me after my year as YP of the Year, but that doesn't look likely with also being involved in the Scottish Young Planners' Network steering group currently as Vice Chair, becoming Chair in 2013, so it might be some time yet before I give people a break from me!"
What were your reasons for becoming engaged in RTPI governance, especially at such a young age Nikola?
"I sort of fell into the Chapter Committee, but continue to lead and support the Chapter in my area, and also lead the Scottish Young Planners' Network as Vice-Chair this year, my reasons perhaps were just recognising the importance of both the Chapters and SYPN as support networks for a wide range of professionals. The Chapter networks alongside the SYPN and RTPI Scotland itself holds over 50 RTPI events across Scotland annually, many free, many sponsored and you learn so much about planning by attending and exchanging views. I like to be part of generating support events whether Chapter, YPs or national RTPI events. I believe we should also try to attract other professionals to learn about planning. Certainly when I go to a party I am proud to say I am a planner; not all of my colleagues feel the same.
Participating in the RTPI also allows you to meet so many inspirational people, and an opportunity to learn and grow as a planner, and I want to be part of shaping the institute's future for its members."
What motivated you to apply to apply to become Young Planner of the Year?
"I had always followed the Award, supporting previous contenders and always found YPs to be confident and enthusiastic. After I supported one candidate, others suggested I might apply, so I did and became part of a very varied and great shortlist. I was shortlisted just after I was made redundant in 2011 which boosted my confidence at a difficult time. I guess my enthusiasm for planning and the RTPI must have come across to those who voted, (and most of my friends are planners)! The interview process, which was introduced this year for the first time as part of the Award, meant that winning the Award in the end was a further confidence boost, knowing that I'd been selected by the panel of judges, not only being voted by my peers."
You now work for a mainly rural consultancy, Smiths Gore. What other experience do you have and how has it influenced you?
"In all of my work, including for Planning Aid for Scotland, consultation has been an important feature. I am most proud of the PAS Education Programme IMBY which I worked to develop during my time there, and which is now going from strength to strength. Using planning to engage children and the community in influencing their future is important role and I am very proud to be part of still as a volunteer for PAS. My time at PAS was very important to me and has improved my communication, presentation and planning law skills immensely, and showed me in a very real way the extent to which planning matters.
At GVA community engagement was also important to my work. I worked on a Master Plan for John O'Groats where the community has a mixture of scepticism and high expectations having been "planned" a number of times. Deliverability was the key because the community was suffering consultation fatigue. We had to try to sell ideas to commercial interests and business was very cautious, in fact my experience at Miller Developments confirmed this business caution. Providing evidence to back up investment proposals was challenging and we had to try to discover something that was likely to actually happen. I regret that only a small number of the proposals have been achieved and this was disheartening but I hope to go back and see some results."
As the youngest so far of my interviewees, rather than ask my standard question of what to look for in a planner, what are your ambitions Nikola for the next 5-10 years or so?
"I have a real passion for planning and I'm ambitious in my desire to achieve more for the profession in the wider sense. I'd like to be National Convenor and perhaps eventually RTPI President."
"Primarily, so that I could influence the governance of the RTPI especially in Scotland, to provide the framework for good planning. Many planners are still not aware of what the RTPI does so we need to communicate better.
Smiths Gore is a very ethically based practice that does a lot of work for many major rural estates amongst other clients. Smiths Gore is a multidisciplinary practice throughout the UK, with a small planning team working across Scotland, so along with 2 other planners, and one a partner, I work with architecture and building services and rural surveyor colleagues to deliver planning advice for our clients. I would hope to progress here as their approach aligns with my personal values and I hope to experience will make me a more rounded planner. Smiths Gore also kindly support my involvement in the RTPI, much of which is outside work time, but I am now addressing how my profile and network might help in business development as a return on their investment in me. I collect knowledge that is really valuable to my employers and their clients. I also have to continually focus at work to deliver results because of the time required to address my RTPI interests."
You must have an ambition for planning?
"The future of planning will depend on the extent to which it delivers development and with the economy in its current state, it may take a while. There is an increased need for good design and place making and we need occasionally to step back from the process and review impact; make sure the development is of the right type and quality delivered in the right place.
We also need to do more in schools not only to capture undergraduates for accredited courses, but also to increase understanding of planning so that people do not only engage in the process when it is happening to them, or it is too late for them to influence policy, but have the skills and knowledge to engage earlier in the process. Planning provides an extraordinary opportunity to shape our country and the way it is governed. We need to get across to young people when they are 15 or 16 what amazing opportunities a career in planning has to offer, changing places, guiding politics, helping people achieve a better quality of life. If I'd known that then, I would have chosen a career in planning at that age.
I believe that the RTPI should be more ambitious internationally. Despite shortfalls, other countries look to us for advice and experience. The job market is international and my experience at the APA Convention convinced me that we have a huge contribution to make."
Nikola must be one of the best advocates for the RTPI and planning I have ever met. It will be very interesting to watch what will undoubtedly be a very interesting career for this exceptional young professional planner.
Interview conducted by Martin Willey, September 2012