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Life at the top table - a day as a Chief Planner

By Victoria Vernon

Victoria Vernon 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 her experience.

I was delighted to have been offered the opportunity to spend the day shadowing Paul Seddon, Nottingham City Council’s Director of Planning and Regeneration in February.

The day started with a 1:2:1 with Paul where I gained valuable insight into his role and his department’s. This was followed by a directors’ appraisal group meeting which focused on management issues such as staff development.  Although it was not planning related, it was interesting and, refreshing to see how much the directors valued their teams and wanted to develop their staff to be the best that they could be.

A key take-out for me is that the role of the Chief Planner is to create opportunities, ensure timings are correct to achieve political support, and broker investments to ensure the schemes go ahead.

I then received an introduction to the political nature of planning. Nottingham City Council has strong political influence and it was extremely beneficial to learn about the need to form a balanced judgment and how to negotiate with developers.

I learnt first hand how Paul and his planners are working alongside partners to bring development forward by adopting a “we can find a way” attitude rather than the “this can’t be done” attitude that has often been associated with local government planners.

It was also interesting to hear about the good relationship the planning committee has with the planners and how Paul and his team have built the committee’s confidence in planners’ knowledge of sustainable development and determination to achieve the best outcome for everyone.

A highlight of the day was the city centre masterplanning discussion. This showed me how planners can steer the regeneration of a city and provided insight into how planners balance existing uses, political visions, feedback from key consultees and sensitive views to create a vision for the city embraced by all.

The use of imaging and 3D modelling to demonstrate the impact of developments was amazing. I had the opportunity to ask the Urban Design Team questions and learned about how the team gets buy-in for the scheme from consultees through proactive engagement.

A key take-out for me is that the role of the Chief Planner is to create opportunities, ensure timings are correct to achieve political support, and broker investments to ensure the schemes go ahead.

A meeting with Homes England allowed me to observe Paul as a chief planner in action. In discussing delays in developments and staffing capacity, Paul adopted a mediation role and tactfully highlighted the political nature of planning and the need to see the bigger picture.

It was shocking to hear about the effect of government cuts on Paul’s team and the wider planning industry. Paul highlighted that solutions to the capacity issues faced by planners have been identified - the issue is having the funding to implement them.

In the afternoon Paul held a directorate-wide meeting where his team could openly discuss concerns and future directions, including the results of the recent Employee Satisfaction Survey. It was encouraging to see the open and safe environment in which issues were raised and addressed, and the thoughtful way that Paul reflected on the results of the survey.

I also benefitted from joining Paul’s team for a design review and a session designed to give me an insight to the strategic planning and urban design departments. I visited the Urban Room, a fantastic venue for community engagement, had the chance to look at the council’s design guidance as well as attended a session where the designs of a current application were peer reviewed by different teams. Despite his absence, Paul’s influence in creating a respectful and open environment in meetings was palpable.  

An introduction into strategic planning taught me about the county’s Joint Advisory Board and the successes and challenges which came with the development of the Joint Core Strategy.

The art of balancing

The key thing I learnt from my day with Paul is that to become a good chief planner, you need to learn the importance of when to trust your team, when to step back and let go of some planning matters, and when to have a leading role on key projects. It’s a fine balance but to be successful, it’s vital to get right.

This initiative has given me valuable insight, not only on the life of a chief planner but also on the areas of planning which interest me and the career progression paths available, opening my eyes to local authority opportunities as well as the private sector positions I learnt about during university.

See pictures of future chief planners on their work-shadowing day. 

To find out more about this initiative contact [email protected]

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