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Frances Summers: Inspiring the next generation of planners

Frances Summers is Senior Planning Policy Officer Economic Growth and Infrastructure Dorset Council. She is also RTPI South West Young Planner of the Year

When I was young, I wanted to become an English teacher. I worked in schools, taught in after school clubs and assisted small groups of students. But one thing led to another and before I knew it, I had started a temporary maternity cover position in the local council’s planning department. I was 32.

I instantly fell in love with the profession, I found I was good at it and was lucky enough to be offered a permanent contract and my employers support through a Master’s Degree in Urban and Rural Planning. 

I want to make sure our subsequent generations are made aware of planning as a career well before they are 32! That way, if anyone is interested, they can make informed choices about their study early on, and hopefully, we can inspire the chief planners of tomorrow.

So, when Speakers for Schools and Dorset’s Local Enterprise Partnership in April 2021 asked me to host some virtual work experience, I jumped at the chance. It was an opportunity to help secondary school children across the country who had missed out on work experience due to Covid-19 lockdowns.

I didn’t want to put the young adults at the mercy of my Northumbrian accent for the whole day, so I involved a few of my colleagues to help design and present the day. Together, we started brainstorming ideas. We wanted to create interesting content that consisted of the students ‘doing’ planning; nothing too complicated, and something that would work in a virtual environment. We wrote a bright and punchy advert and asked students to apply for their placement.

Our design emerged from two main objectives; the creation of content that would give the students a good overview of what planning is; and the ability to practice essential skills needed for planning.

  • To help the students get a good overview of what planning is, we asked them to design an extension to #YourTown, a make-believe town with considerable flood risks, conservation areas and beautiful landscapes.
  • To help the students start to think like a planner and develop decision-making skills, we decided to talk to them about the three pillars of sustainability and the concept of balanced decision making. We also produced a pretend Landscape and Heritage study for the town and some fake public and statutory consultee responses.
  • To help the students think about place-making, we asked them to consider the design of their extension around the key ideas presented in ‘Building for a Healthy Life’, a design tool by Homes England that aims to create places that foster strong outcomes for people and nature. This knowledge prompted them to think about transport methods, green and blue infrastructure, the design of homes, healthy streets and spaces and facilities for their town extension.
  • To help the students practice their public speaking, we set up a fake planning committee and asked our students to present to some of Dorset’s Councillors.

The young adults used the supporting documents and the ideas for design to support their decisions. Then they presented their ideas to Councillors. The Councillors listened and then asked questions about each group’s extension, encouraging students to think about how their design would work in the real world and prompting interesting discussions. Everyone was intrigued by the types of things the young adults prioritised, like climate change.

To our delight, several attendees ended the day saying they were interested in becoming planners! But we also thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Because we went back to the basics of planning and took our heads out of the detail of our daily work, it reinvigorated us and brought us together as a team. It reminded us of why we got into planning, and we felt a sense of achievement because we had hopefully empowered the next generation of planners.

Creating the initial template took a bit of time, but this can now be used and moulded with much less effort. For instance, I talked to over 90 primary school classes and only needed to tweak the content so it was shorter and more visual.

I’ve presented to 6th formers. Again using parts of the template, we discussed how we could redesign a mundane street to create an attractive place where we could boost the economy and health; concentrating on lighting, planting, reducing the reliance on cars on roads and so on.

Next year I aim to increase our presence in the community even more and have already secured stalls at careers fairs, talks for 450 secondary school pupils and virtual insight opportunities. Our focus will be on climate change, Women in Planning and apprenticeships and will again use the template we have already created.

In writing this blog, I hope other councils and consultancies use our experience and ideas. It reinvigorated our passion for the profession and hopefully encouraged some more talented, enthusiastic people into the planning profession.

 

If you know someone inspiring like Frances, why not nominate them for The Planner's annual Women of Influence list. Nominations are open until 11 January.

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