Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Charlotte Carlin: Planning, Leadership and Apples

The life and times of a Chief Planner

Charlotte Carlin MRTPI is an Infrastructure Planning Officer at Cumbria County Council. As part of the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow Initiative, she recently spent a week with a senior planner at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service.

In late September 2021, I was given a fantastic opportunity to experience the working world of Stephen Kelly, Joint Director of Planning and Economic Development at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service.

Through the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative, I wanted to get an understanding of the typical experiences of a Chief Planner and to learn about the priorities and challenges of the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service to observe whether there were any parallels with the priorities and challenges across Cumbria.


Understanding the development of the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan was of particular interest to me. This is because of a strategic approach behind the four themes of the emerging Local Plan structured in a way in which to encourage a collective focus on the issues that are critical to influencing growth in Greater Cambridge, rather than with simply structuring the Local Plan on the more typical themes of house building, jobs and infrastructure for example. 

The four themes of Climate Change, Biodiversity and green spaces, Wellbeing and social inclusion and Great Places, focus on the complexities faced by Greater Cambridge but which are also faced by the country as a whole. This approach to framing a Local Plan encourages stakeholders to think more broadly about the purpose of local plans and what we, as stakeholders, are setting out to achieve with their application.


An informal meeting with Cabinet Members, which focused on the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan and the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework, allowed me to observe the approach to alignment between members as they prepared for the formal Cabinet meeting held later that week.

It demonstrated to me that there is a lot of work that takes place in the background to ensure that members understand complex projects fully in order that they can offer clear messages in their communications at and following the Council meeting.

Sharing Ideas and Good Practice

The Town Centres Forum meeting with the UK Innovation Corridor shared ideas around town centre and high street recovery. It was interesting to draw parallels from some of the discussions in the meeting to the position of towns and high streets across Cumbria. The focus on discussions was on Community Improvement Districts with a case study delivered from Tom Hardy Bid Manager at Hitchin Business Improvement District (BID). I was particularly inspired by the work the BID undertakes in providing free business training programmes, allocating space for buskers, and providing local artists with studio space to work from.


In conversations around the emerging Local Plan, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, and the challenges and opportunities of working within a Shared Planning Service structure – including governance matters, priorities, and recruitment issues, Stephen demonstrated to me through his conduct in each meeting, that a good leader is a mediator and a trusted advisor; a leader who asks the right questions and finds realistic solutions. Stephen asks the same questions the rest of us in the public sector ask around governance matters to ensure we are always conscientiously following the right lines of governance and are confident about the decision-making path. The Constitution is the oracle!

With Stephen, I was introduced to a leadership style that I have not observed before. To aid decision making, Stephen would ask colleagues what would happen if the team didn’t take a particular approach. What position would Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Authority or the community be in if they took one stance over another? I considered this a great tactic in revisiting why we make the decisions we do and in helping stakeholders to understand planning more holistically.

A positive leader is a communicator and influencer. I observed how we need to network to harness relationships and understand priorities, how we need to celebrate our similarities to close the gap with areas that we may not meet in the middle on with other stakeholders, and how we need to listen actively and encourage people to ‘be in the room’ to have the opportunities to influence. “There will always be a range of views and it is important that they are heard.”

The Human Factor

I observed that leaders are not just leaders, they have a life outside of work which they are also dedicated to. With the Leadership Team meeting, discussions opened with a ‘check-in’ question designed to encourage the team to learn more about one another. After introducing us to how he spent his weekend crushing apples for cider with members of the community in his garden, Stephen asked the team to give an example of how each leader has put a lot of effort into a task which resulted in an output that didn’t quite equate to the amount of effort put in. The Leadership Team each spent two minutes explaining how they had put efforts into pond making, cake making, cricket games, fixing the wrong parts of a car, and pea podding with grandmother. Learning about others outside of the working environment was a refreshing and insightful wellbeing exercise before getting down to business.

Final thoughts

I am very grateful to the RTPI for organising the Chief Planners of Tomorrow experience and all the hard work put in behind the scenes to pull together a fascinating agenda with Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service. Thanks especially go to Stephen Kelly for dedicating valuable time allowing me to shadow him for the week.  I would strongly encourage others to apply for future Chief Planners of Tomorrow opportunities with the RTPI. For me, the experience enabled me to observe and learn from the essential leadership attributes required to support the approach to the often-conflicting priorities that we experience within the world of planning.


How  to apply 

Applications for Chief Planners of Tomorrow open on Friday 26 November. Before applying you will need to register as a member of the RTPI Young Planners, be a member of the RTPI and a graduate, Licentiate or Chartered member with no more than 10 years’ experience post-qualification, and not be a previous participant in the programme.

Back to top