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A young planner goes behind the scenes

By Natasha Blackmore Da Silva

Natasha Blackmore Da Silva is one of 23 young planners who work-shadowed Chief Planning Officers for a day to understand the challenges and processes at senior levels in local government, thanks to an RTPI initiative. Here is what she had to say about this experience.

I spent a day at Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) thanks to the RTPI initiative to experience public sector planning from a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective. The main purpose of my day was to engage with public sector planners and gain insight into the decisions and challenges the senior management team face trying to balance public services, fiscal constraints, the expectations of stakeholders and the effects of politics.

I had the opportunity to engage not only with the planning team but also the senior management team and the directors.

Culture change

The way we use the planning authority is changing - more applications than ever are being submitted online, correspondence is done via email, and the telephone has become the primary means of communication. It only follows that these changes should prompt planning authorities to change the way they are run.  The senior management team at B&NES calls this a “Culture Change” and it is more difficult than you think to provide planning advice for a modern and ever changing world.

Maintaining efficiency and capacity in the face of the modern world means changing the way the department is run day-to-day. The Council is increasingly encouraging employees to work from home when possible to avoid unnecessary commutes into the city and the consequential vehicular pollution.

My first meeting of the day involved reviewing the Department’s home working protocols to ensure that both employees and customers are getting the most from it. This included automated responses on emails indicating alternative numbers to call, accessing emails online from home, and performance reviews. The managers note that it has taken a while for local authorities to realise that planning consultants and applicants don’t care if you’re not in the office as long as they can get hold of you.

More than just planning applications

Like many private sector planners I was under the misapprehension that planners spend their whole day at their desks deciding the fate of our applications. However, I have learnt that this is far from true and there is much more to being a public sector planner than just determining applications.

Over the course of one day I was presented with only a fraction of the challenges and issues that the senior management team faces. Some are planning related, for example, new policies and information that needs to be taken into consideration when determining applications; others are more administrative challenges such as confidentiality issues and website navigation problems.

It was also interesting to see how B&NES tries to engage with service users on other platforms, for instance, the Agents Forum which allows planning consultants to provide feedback on how the planning service could be improved. .

Case Busting

The second part of my day involved a case busting session in which the whole planning team discussed recent case law and policy amendments that could affect how they interpret the wording of policy when making decisions.

We also reviewed a few recent appeal decisions that the senior managers felt it important that all team members were not only aware of but also understood the decision fully and could use this to support their future decisions.

A word with the Director

My meeting with Lisa Bartlett, Director of Development & Public Protection, offered me some final nuggets of wisdom. The main thing she wanted me to take away from the day was that ‘Communication is Key’. This is not as simpleas it seems, but it is important that public sector planners try their best to communicate sufficiently due to the large number of people planning decisions can impact directly and indirectly.

Bath Spa is a truly fascinating place with a mix of listed buildings, heritage assets, and modern structures. It is only logical that the planning department would walk the fine line of protecting the past whilst also preparing Bath for a modern and more forward thinking world.

I would like to thank the RTPI for arranging this opportunity and to Lisa Bartlett and the senior managers at B&NES for sharing their time and wisdom.

It has been a privilege to participate in such an incredible educational opportunity and I hope that this initiative continues to expand so that more young planners can benefit.

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