What do planners do? An interview with Zoe Green
Published: 14 Oct 2016
Planning has been around since the first cities were built thousands of years ago, but has only been considered a profession for the past hundred years or so. Former RTPI Young Planner of the Year Zoe Green takes a look at what planners actually do
Planning is more than just home extensions
Planning is about helping to physically shape the places where we live, work and play. A key strength of planners is that they can take a step back and consider the bigger picture – they’ll consider economic, social, physical and environmental issues to arrive at a solution that offers the best outcome for all. Everyone has an interest in their local environment and part of a planner’s job is helping to balance competing interests. Local authorities, developers and community groups are all involved in the planning process. Then there are the technical specialists, such as urban designers and architects.
Not all planners do the same job
Planning is a very broad profession and provides opportunities to work in a variety of areas. Planners are often generalists and can move from role to role, but some decide to become specialists in fields such as transport, energy, conservation or economics. Planning really does touch on every aspect of the world around us, from the location and appearance of the houses we live in to the size of the schools we attend to the supply of the electricity we use to power our lives.
Planning professionals work in the public and the private sector. The public sector includes national and local government bodies such as government departments and local authorities. The private sector includes planning consultancies that might advise developers on building projects. In the public sector, planners assess planning applications and provide advice to elected representatives who make decisions. Planners also prepare policies to manage development.
In the private sector, planner coordinate planning applications from private bodies such as house builders, and they prepare the evidence base assessments necessary to inform development plan policies.
Planners also work in the ‘third sector’ and in academia. The third sector includes charities such as Water Aid, RSPB and the National Trust, which lobby to promote their charitable objectives. Academics typically undertake research that may influence development of planning policy and law.
Planners influence but don’t always make the final decision
Do planners work to their own ideas, to rules set down in legislation, to government policy or to the ideas of clients or elected councillors?
It could be any of these things and really depends upon the job they do. Many planners, however, are answerable to the planning authority (for example, a borough council) or client they represent. They may offer expert guidance, but they’re not normally making major planning decisions unless working as chief planners or government inspectors.
Planners also need to have a keen eye on case law, statute and guidance. In assessing applications for new development, planners have to consider national guidance alongside regional planning policy (for example, the London Plan) and local policy (for example, local council planning policy).
Planning is not the same everywhere
Planning is an international profession, and systems vary across the world. This means that countries around the world adopt different approaches to planning for land use and the built environment.
For example, the USA has a land use zoning process with a greater focus on design codes. In comparison, the UK has a subjective rules-based system.
The UK has four different national planning systems. Though similar England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all do planning in slightly different ways. Professional planners can work all over the world, but UK planners find the transition to working in Canada, Australia, the USA, New Zealand and the Middle East is more straight forward.
You can work with all sorts of people
As you might expect from the number of different organisations that planners can work for, there’s scope to work with pretty much everybody! Planners work with architects and builders, with politicians and conservationists, with engineers, designers, business leaders, health workers, civic representatives of all kinds and even schoolchildren.
Everyone’s life is affected by the work we do, so we have to be prepared to work with anyone.
What’s really satisfying is…
As planners we help to physically shape a place for the better, for all, and it's incredibly satisfying to see schemes that you’ve worked on being delivered. Our work helps to improve communities, giving people access to homes, transport, schools, shops, leisure, open spaces, and so on. It’s endlessly fascinating and very rewarding.
Zoe Green is former RTPI Young Planner of the Year and a senior planner for Atkins, a private planning consultancy. Her work has taken her to Sweden, Bahrain and Colombia. Zoe is preoccupied by the challenge of ensuring that London remains a city for all.