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Philippa Smith: Tackling the keyboard warriors

Philippa Smith is a member of RTPI West Midlands Regional Activities Committee and Plan Project Manager at Sandwell Council

Planning has always been an emotive subject for many people - for those who work as planners and for those who may be impacted by planning proposals or decisions.

More recently, being on the frontline has changed for planning officers. People have become more fired up about issues that affect them, provoking strong reactions in some cases and not always good ones. Social media has provided an additional platform for keyboard warriors to rally support to object to proposals or for support of a particular pressure group. In truth, people have become more belligerent and confrontational over the last few years, with incidents at public consultation events and planning committees becoming more frequent and even the Police being called on some occasions.

So, when it came to discuss the content of the RTPI West Midlands CPD programme for this year, it was no surprise to us that this topic was one suggested to us by our members. Sadly, it’s a sentiment backed up by the RTPI’s own research, RTPI | Interim State of the Profession 2023. Local authority planners are working in ever more difficult working environments on a daily basis.

We asked ourselves, what can we do to help our members through this?

As part of the West Midlands RTPI | Regional Activities Committee I was more than happy to lead on developing a specific course designed for those working in the public sector. Working in conjunction with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, we designed a course that would address some of the concerns mentioned to us. The course covering practical skills on how to keep safe while working with the public, lone working, and internet and social media safety, among other topics.

The pilot event went really well. It was good to see a range of planning roles represented including Planning Policy Officers, Development Management Officers, and Enforcement Officers. All of us were able to share experiences of where we have encountered violence and aggression and intimidating situations in our day-to-day work with the public.

It was poignant to be reminded by our trainer, Laura from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, about who Suzy Lamplugh was and what happened to her. She worked as an estate agent and was meeting a potential buyer, something she did every day, when she disappeared without a trace, presumed murdered and eventually declared deceased in 1993 – a sobering thought for us all. 

Laura then spent the morning session helping us to understand the need to risk assess our daily situations. Working in small groups we looked at how we might use our personal judgement to assess our current situation, how to increase our awareness, and most importantly avoid complacency in familiar situations. We were encouraged to share our experiences in complete confidence.

The afternoon session gave us the tools to manage difficult situations. We learned about assertive behaviour strategies, tracing systems, diffusion techniques, exit strategies, and techniques for managing behaviour, both our own and other peoples. We learned how to tackle social media and question corporate social media strategies if they are not working to protect us. There was no time for a post lunch lull but if there had have been, there were sweets and cookies on hand to give that extra bit of energy.

I learned a lot from Laura and my fellow planners. In particular the opportunity to hear other officers’ stories was both informative and sobering. I am now ready to take on our Draft Plan consultation later this year armed with the knowledge and a new confidence that we can make changes to our practices to keep ourselves safe. I will also cascade the information to any colleagues who were not lucky enough to be at the event in person.

The RTPI will also be launching a welfare campaign later this year which will help tackle the issues of misinformation and abuse. The focus of the campaign will be to provide a clear and easy to understand guide to the planning system and will include messaging around not abusing planners. The campaign is designed to support members who may be facing abuse either online or in person. In addition to the campaign the RTPI already offers mental health and wellbeing support, including a confidential helpline, as well as links to helpful resources for individuals and employers. You can find out more in our dedicated hub.


Our ears are always open – if you have a topic you would like to see us offer in next year’s CPD programme, or would like to speak at one of our events, do get in touch.

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