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My journey to becoming the female owner of a planning consultancy

By Helen Cuthbert, director of Planning Potential

I chose a joint town planning and geography degree following a careers’ evening at school where a young female planner talked to us about her work. I could relate to her, and it sounded an interesting job and a way to avoid a purely desk-based role.  She also said she had very sociable colleagues and there were beers after work! 

I was intrigued by towns and buildings, having moved home with my parents three times, from a seaside town in the New Forest, to Winchester and then to Metroland in the London suburbs. Very different housing typologies…mock Georgian new build, Victorian terrace, and 1930s semi. 

I graduated from Birmingham University in 1994 and was one of only two people from my course to gain a job in planning as we were just coming out of a recession. I spent 10 years learning about town planning as a planning consultant in a small practice. I completed my masters, whilst working, and gained my membership of the RTPI in 1999.

I am now a director at Planning Potential, which I set up 14 years ago. We started with four people and we are now 40-strong and have three offices.  My approach is to be a pragmatic optimist, to assist clients and architects to develop their proposals and to communicate the plans effectively with members of the public and the planning authority. I love the way the projects can be so diverse.  I do think there is a tendency for matters to become overcomplicated, so I try to keep things simple.  Normally proposals and impacts can be explained in a nutshell – and supported by rafts of technical documents….

I am also a mum to two teenage boys, which brings challenges to the work-life balance, a never-ending juggle of washing sports kit and attending planning committee! I do think a busy life helps you focus on doing the things that really matter rather than allowing yourself to get bogged down in the minutiae. I am also really lucky to have an excellent team of planners who bring a range of skills and approaches to support our projects.  I am particularly proud of our family friendly culture in the office, you never need to feel guilty about attending an assembly or parents’ evening.  We expect hard work and commitment but are flexible and discourage presenteeism.

Being a woman in a leadership role does not concern me – I think we bring a greater element of empathy to the workplace and to those who are facing a significant change in their living environment as a result of a development proposal. Whilst guilty of generalising, I also feel women tend to work collaboratively and not aggressively, finding the areas of compromise that we need to secure planning permission and address objections raised in the planning process.

In my career as a planning consultant I am extremely proud of supporting my staff and growing a strong business. In terms of projects, there isn’t a single scheme that stands out, but the thrill of gaining approval at planning committee following a lengthy application process is always something that motivates me.

Since I started my career a few things have changed. We didn’t have computers and mobile phones, and no internet to do a planning history search or Google street view. It was plotting sheets and microfiche – although we still occasionally teach new graduates how to do a planning history the old school way! I was regularly asked to pour the coffee as the only woman in the meeting room when I started my career and thankfully that doesn’t happen now.

My advice for a young female planner now, quoting the famous Galaxy Quest motto, is: "Never give up, never surrender". There is nearly always a solution to a planning problem, and if it hasn’t ended well, it isn’t the end. Stay positive, optimistic and look for solutions. There is nothing to stop you leading a team or a practice, just follow your instincts and keep things simple.

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