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Moving into local authority planning: What you need to know

Published on: 11 Mar 2016

What is it?

Local government is regarded as the traditional place to start a planning career and get the best grounding possible in all the disciplines.

Most planning applications are determined by local councils, with elected councillors making the decisions in some cases, depending on the size of the development.

Local authorities also oversee the direction of development in their area by creating local plans and assembling land for development. Increasingly, they are taking on a development role themselves. Local authorities are at the heart of planning in the UK and Ireland.

What are public sector employers looking for?

To be a successful planner with a local authority you need to have set of skills to help you cope with the challenges and workload, says Annabel Osborne, a planning officer with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in London.

Adaptability is also key – Osborne currently works in development management, but would like to move into enforcement or planning policy in the future.

  • People skills/Communication skills

    Good people skills are very important because of the variety of different people you meet as a council planner – from councillors and agents to members of the public, she says. “You are the main point of call for members of the public, and there is a variety of different needs and desires”

  • Empathy

    Being able to empathise with people is an important element of working in a local authority, as the role involves helping people negotiate the intricacies of the planning process. When working with agents as well, it is very important to understand where they are coming from. “When refusing an application I offer agents an opportunity to seek additional advice rather than just saying ‘no’,” says Osborne.

Essential skills

  • Confident in speaking and writing

    Being articulate in both verbal and written ways is a key attribute, says Osborne. Good report writing ability is an important part of the job.

    Having the confidence to defend any decision you have made as a planner is important if you are challenged to justify it, Osborne explains.  “in Kensington and Chelsea residents are quite active and knowledgeable – there are quite a lot of planning barristers living in the area!”

  • Being organised

    Good organisational skills and attention to detail are the principles which Osborne uses to arrange her workload, with between 30-40 applications to deal with at any one time.

    Osborne warns against being disorganised. “If you are fire fighting all the time then you are not allowing yourself time to consider an application. “I write a ‘to do’ list every day and, for example, always arrange a site visit within a week of an application being submitted,” she says.

  • Passionate yet impartial

    You need to be passionate about the built environment, as it can be a challenging job working in a council planning department, but also very rewarding, she says.

  • It is imperative that you of course remain impartial at all times. “You have to balance the wants and needs of stakeholders involved in the process,” says Osborne.

CV/application form highlights

Local authorities don’t usually invite a curriculum vitae with job applications, instead preferring forms which ask for personal attributes. Applicants need to make sure their skills match the job specification. “It’s about giving examples of behaviours rather than just quoting projects that you’ve worked on,” Osborne says:

  • Get involved with your local RTPI planning committee to make contacts and show you are committed to the profession
  • Focus on how you developed as a planner and learnt new skills instead of listing achievements

Types of roles available

Roles in local authority planning departments vary from council to council, but there some common ones. Officers oversee development management, enforcement, planning obligations, policy, appeals, conservation and design.

In Kensington & Chelsea’s planning division four area teams work with all the disciplines. “Some of the common skills are similar in terms of personal attributes, but are quite different on a day-to-day basis,” says Osborne.

Planner cover Guide 2015

To read more from the Planner 2015 Guide to Career Development please click here.