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“I’m just after some planning advice…” Tips on how to frame your professional advice in all contexts

Lauren Whitworth is a Chartered Town Planner based in Greater Manchester who has worked across the public, private and social housing sectors. She is a volunteer for Planning Aid England’s email advice service and will become Chair of the RTPI’s Conduct and Discipline Panel from August.

Do you remember that scene in 'A Few Good Men' where Tom Cruise goads Jack Nicholson into admitting he knew about the bullying of soldiers? If not, it's well worth a watch. One wrong word from Jack Nicholson under pressure and Tom Cruise's character wins the court case. Whilst it might seem highly unlikely that a professional would make such a foolish mistake, it happens…and it happens more often than you might think.

As a member of the RTPI, irrespective of your professional status, you are bound by the RTPI Code of Professional Conduct. If you haven't read it recently it is worth revisiting. The Code covers aspects such as:

  • Competence, honesty and integrity
  • Independent professional judgement
  • Due care and diligence
  • Equality and respect
  • Professional behaviour

When giving advice, however well intentioned, planners can sometimes find themselves in hot water. Luckily, there are a number of things that you can do as a professional to limit your exposure including when you are volunteering or asked for your advice on a planning issue, even in an informal setting.

One of the most common mistakes made when providing professional advice is to answer questions which are not planning related. As an example, with reference to my work on the PAE volunteer advice service, someone could email the service complaining that their neighbour has built an extension on the party wall. As an MRTPI PAE volunteer, I am covered by the RTPI's professional indemnity insurance [PII] for giving planning advice on behalf of PAE. If I make a suggestion relating to a party wall i.e., a legal matter not a planning matter, and that advice is wrong, the client could take legal action and could report me to the RTPI for failing to adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct. It’s easily done, often in a bid to be helpful, but in such circumstances, it is more helpful to signpost the client to someone who is a professional in that field.

Qualifying the advice that you do give helps demonstrate that you have undertaken due care and diligence. Whilst you may think planning permission for an extension isn't required, there may be some key missing information that you are not aware of. Moreover, it is generally the local planning authority who are the decision makers when it comes to development (permitted or otherwise) and the client should understand that your view on the matter is not part of the Council's deliberations. Therefore, qualify responses by stating firstly, that your view is based on the information provided; and secondly, that the client should contact the Council for a formal decision. On a related point, do your own due diligence and don’t rely on another planner’s research. You don’t want to find yourself dealing with the consequences of someone else’s mistake.

When relationships between individuals break down things can quickly turn into “he said, she said” which can lead to self-doubt - ‘did I say that? I can’t remember…’. There have been a few instances where I have been accused of something I didn’t say, so I now have a professional failsafe: I follow up calls with emails noting what was discussed, all advice goes in writing, and I make sure all meetings are minuted. It sounds so simple, but now I never stress when this happens and it’s quick to resolve and move on from.

We all have friends and family who ask us for help when they are in need of planning advice. Writing a letter of objection to a neighbours extension, submitting a planning application, speaking to an enforcement officer, the list goes on. But, if you are getting any kind of payment even if it’s in lieu, you need to have agreed terms of engagement, setting out the terms and conditions for the work.  It is also important to remember that you need to have appropriate Professional Indemnity Insurance even for free work.

People have a tendency to refer to anything that may be relevant when aggrieved. This is often exemplified in objection letters and complaints. An objector may be concerned about overlooking but if it’s the lack of a noise assessment that means permission will be refused, they will add that in for good measure. Similarly with complaints, a client may be upset because their permission was refused and feels you have misadvised them, but they may build their complaint by including other factors such as if you haven’t included your RTPI post nominals on your email and letter correspondence.

I have given a brief overview of some good practice things you can do to protect yourself when providing advice in various contexts but there are lots of different ways you can protect yourself and others. Please leave your best suggestions in the comments section…every day is a school day when you’re a volunteer.

For further guidance on some of these issues, including case studies, please look at the RTPI’s practice advice on professional standards and ethics:

The RTPI Code of Professional Conduct and other supplementary information can be found here:

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