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Three reflections from a career in planning

13 April 2017 Author: Michael Sander MRTPI


Gatwick airport. Photo credit: Richard Humphrey.

Spatial planning is at an interesting time across many regions and nations. The RTPI continues to be part of the conversation, for example in promoting the importance of international sustainable development goals and the New Urban Agenda.

Here are three reflections from a career in planning which I hope will encourage young planners in particular to get the most out of their careers.

See the bigger picture – town planning makes a difference

A highlight early in my career was in my first chief officer job. I was asked to produce a housing strategy for the whole of the council district and to move towards the implementation of its recommendations in terms of physical development - all within four years! This was possible at that time. It involved some regeneration in each of the town centres, significant housing association development, especially for elderly people, and the building of a large number of council houses.

Another key highlight developed when I was chief executive of the council in Crawley. We were able to market much of the land the council owned and reinvest the proceeds. This meant that, in a period of little more than 15 years, we brought in about £70 million, all of which was reinvested in the community: building a new theatre, a town hall extension, community centres and a range of sports facilities which were used as one of the starter sites for the Olympics in 2012.

In my period there, we were the last council in England and Wales to still develop council houses, despite the effects of the government's ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, and I am proud that we developed more than 1,500 council houses in my time as part of neighbourhood development. This was a very exciting overarching project. It would be good to hope that we were at least inching forward towards a full circle in this respect with some of the proposals in the recent Housing White Paper.

I am also proud of my work at Gatwick Airport where we helped to increase the passenger throughput from 12 to 32 million passengers each year. Towards the end of my time there, where I was head of Local Authority Port Health Services and responsible for the statutory plans, we negotiated a Section 106 agreement with the airport authority in connection with the new Gatwick Bridge which linked the two terminals. That agreement was very powerful because it committed the Gatwick authority to setting up a community trust, which has received each year in the order of £100,000 invested in the community in charity projects within the wider noise shadow of the airport.

Finally, a key piece of work that many of us undertook in the Greater London Council (GLC) related to the quality of housing - this was in the 1960s and 70s - and creating the briefs for new development, because we were able to moderate the earlier post-war approaches to housing and ensure a far better product in terms of living condition for tenants.

Be positive - town planning must remain pro-active

In my experience in the mid-post war decades in England, planning was viewed much more positively than it is now and many planners came from related disciplines, for example architecture, engineering and surveying. This was reflected in my experience when I did a Master of Philosophy in Town Planning at University College London – many planners came from geography or economics and those subjects are still on the curriculum. The link with geography was very powerful in those days and I hope it might return. Many geographers chose a career in planning and that might be an area where the supply of planners could be enhanced.

[It's] important that the successes that planners have achieved are celebrated and that those successes are communicated to those who are choosing planning ...RTPI members have a critical role in doing this.

The skills that are acquired working in planning can be applied in a much wider arena, so there are links to a range of jobs. Because of many changes including the actions of governments, the atmosphere and the climate for planning is unfortunately much more negative than it was. There is insufficient recognition of the value of planning, some of that value lying in its powerful long-term effects. I’m referring here to conservation and, after review, the appropriate retention of the green belt. There is always a case for better publicity for what can be achieved through planners and the planning profession.

The work that RTPI Ambassadors are carrying out using the RTPI Ambassadors toolkit for volunteers to promote planning as a relevant and exciting career delivering sustainable development is a step in the right direction. The RTPI’s Value of Planning research is another area which is seeking to identify and promote planning’s positive effects.

Be proud of planning – and inspire the next generation of town planners

I do think it is important that the successes that planners have achieved are celebrated and that those successes are communicated to those who are choosing planning or might choose planning, and those in the early years in the profession. RTPI members have a critical role in doing this.

The World Town Planning Day 2016 schools competition was one way to encourage young people to look and think about their local area. This was all about grabbing a camera, getting outside and showing how they would make places more sustainable.

I suspect that planning doesn’t feature very much in terms of careers advice given in schools. Positive use of the media to create a more inspirational approach to what planning is achieving and engagement with universities is so important.

As part of your career development, think about getting involved in your local RTPI region or nation or see whether you and your colleagues at work could support the RTPI Future Planners project in some way. The interface with local government is something which the profession needs to work positively on order to grow.

You can listen to interviews with Michael Sander on the RTPI podcast page.

If you are a RTPI member who is interested in representing the profession and engaging with a young audience you can volunteer to inspire young people as an RTPI Ambassador.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Michael Sander MRTPI

Michael Sander MRTPI

Michael Sander MRTPI (retired) is a former chief executive of Crawley Borough Council and Director of Housing at the London Borough of Lewisham.