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Benjamin Vickers: Sorry, Sir Bob

Benjamin is an Independent Consultant based in Cheshire. He is an RTPI Trustee and chairs the England Policy Committee. The Committee informs the RTPI’s response to proposed planning reform.


A lot of us have been there. Uni has finished. You’re cast adrift into the world without a clear idea of what to do next. It was 2004. I was a Geography grad, living in London. I’d enjoyed my ‘Planningy’ modules and quite fancied a master’s in planning. I was penniless. My landlord fancied being paid. Making ends meet, I temped for a while in dreary offices. People didn’t seem passionate about their jobs. Maybe all workplaces were like this? A job at a big charity however really opened my eyes.

The charity sector is quite unique. One does the day job, but you’re also frequently encouraged to volunteer, mostly to help fundraise. This usually took the form of helping run an event. I’ve fond memories of loudly managing ‘cheer stations’ at several London Marathons and meeting boxing legend Henry Cooper. I also met Bob Hoskins. He called me a ‘Prat’ unfortunately. I’d forgotten to sort him out a parking space. Sorry, Sir Bob.

Whilst my celebrity parking skills clearly needed refining, I’d picked up others through volunteering. Event organising, accounting, networking, and sales/marketing to name a few. I learnt to namecheck my volunteering in interviews. This always seemed to get me a little ahead. 

Eventually, I got my Planning MA through distance learning. Unfortunately, it was 2009. Planners were being ‘crunched’. I wasn’t getting interviews. I knew how to get them though. I spent a week drifting around on planning enforcement boats as part of the Norfolk Broads Authority’s planning volunteer pilot. Then a few weeks more helping the TCPA with a couple of climate change projects. Interview invites started appearing.

Camden’s Development Management (DM) team eventually took me on. Whilst DM was a great experience, I’d always thought the truest form of planning is plan-making/policy. I was keen to get into it. This is probably where I first got involved with the RTPI. Answering a call for Planning Aid volunteers to assist a neighbourhood forum prepare their neighbourhood plan, I noted meeting minutes and actions on their behalf. The benefit to me was being party to discussions and decisions on how to form and evidence policy. When that rare, long-awaited interview to join Camden’s policy team eventually came – I was ready. I guess Camden agreed. My principal task there was to deliver ‘car free’ policies. Sorry Sir Bob.

With a local plan under my belt, I relocated to the North, writing policy for Cheshire East. It was a big risk. At the point of leaving, my application for RTPI chartership had been submitted, pending determination. Within the first couple of weeks at Cheshire East my chartership had been approved. For anyone who has gone through APC – well done! I found it bloody hard. LPA planners (understandably) often ask what the point in it is. It usually doesn’t get you any more money. The internal career prospects don’t improve. This was me. What could I do with my hard earnt chartership status?

A southern boy, I didn’t know any planners in the North. My chartership had however enabled me access to the volunteering opportunities offered by RTPI North West. I went to a meeting. Loved it. Before I knew it, I was Treasurer. I’d also organised several events and judged awards. Best of all, I’d built a fantastic network of fellow planners. It’s not easy relocating. The people I met through volunteering made that much easier for me.   

With another plan under my belt and a network of good planners to lean on, I’ve recently felt confident enough to set myself up as a solo consultant/freelancer. I’ve noted how clients seem to take in interest in some events I’ve chaired. Being my own boss has given me the space to step up my volunteering a bit. I was therefore so delighted and flattered to have been elected by my peers as an RTPI Trustee. Within this role, I hope to draw on some of my early career experience from the charity sector.

Volunteering has helped my career no end. I’ve always seen it as a safe space to just try things out. A safe space to fail even. Whilst Sir Bob was momentarily livid, I think he understood the young man peering into his car window wasn’t an employee. I’d volunteered my free time, much like he had. Consequently, his obscenities quickly dissolved into inaudible muttering. Finally reversing back onto the road with a heavy sigh. We both agreed I wasn’t in the right job, but I wouldn’t have known that without giving it a go.

Try volunteering. You never know where it might take you.

Find out more about volunteering with the RTPI here and Elections are opening on the 5 June so keep an eye out for an email from Mi-Voice with details of the roles you can apply for.


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