Planners can find roles in an extraordinary range of sectors and organisations, from councils to international charities and property developers, as Nikola Miller explains.
I’m happy to say that I’m a planner. I’m proud of what I do – planning is one of the most varied careers I’ve come across. And we’re everywhere. Interested in the historic environment? The natural environment? What about health and wellbeing, or cities and urban design? Then a career in planning could be for you. The opportunities open to those with an accredited planning degree are vast.
Working in the public sector
Many people assume that when you say you’re a planner that you work as a Development Management Officer for a planning department at a local authority. They think your job is deciding on planning applications, saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to requests for house extensions and conservatories. That is what some planners in the public sector do. But it’s by no means the only option. As a planner for a local authority you could be involved in:
- Development management: Determining planning applications from the smallest scale (a house extension) right up to large city centre developments that involve complex plans, negotiations and consultation with communities, businesses and landowners.
- Development planning: This is more about policy and vision – helping to shape the long-term strategy for an area. Your job might involve looking to the future of your town and thinking about what will be needed in terms of housing, roads, shops, schools and workplaces in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.
The work of local authority planners cuts across many aspects of what a local authority does. For example, planners need to have a say in housing, health, education, leisure, business, regeneration and economic development. Many planners work in central government helping national politicians decide on the large schemes that provide essential services, such as energy, transport and infrastructure.
Planning roles within different public sector organisations can also give you an opportunity to develop a specialism in that organisation’s field. In Scotland, public sector agencies that employ planners include Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Water, Scottish Natural Heritage, Transport Scotland, Sport Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. If you’re in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you’ll have equivalent bodies.
Working in the private sector
There are opportunities to work for different types of consultancies as a planning consultant. Some will focus purely on planning, others might have an emphasis on architecture or urban design; yet others will be surveying or engineering practices with planners working alongside practitioners from other professions. As a planning consultant you will work for clients to achieve their aspirations, whether that is persuading the council to allocate their land as a development site, working on a master plan for the development on the site, or negotiating planning consent for that development. Planners are often project managers, working in a team with other professionals, such as surveyors, architects and engineers. Developers such as house builders also employ planners. Here, your role might be to help them find appropriate sites, and to work with planning consultancies and local authorities to create plans and secure planning permission.
An international focus
Some property developers and planning consultancies are international. Working for one of these opens the door to working overseas and, because UK planning is so highly thought of, British planners are in demand all over the world.
Members of the RTPI have consulted on garden cities in China, protected the built heritage in Ontario, Canada, and planned new towns in Iraq. UK planners are also working closely with the United Nations and governments worldwide to deliver better housing and infrastructure to the world’s poorest regions.
Working in the third sector
The ‘third’ sector describes organisations that are working, in general, for the social good. They include charities with a humanitarian, heritage or environmental edge, such as: RSPB, which is concerned with protection of wildlife rich environments, Friends of the Earth, concerned about environmental impacts of development, and Shelter, which campaigns for better housing for the vulnerable. All require planning expertise to help them develop policies, respond to planning consultations and work with developers and public sector planners on development that fulfils their charity’s aims.
The third sector also includes public and privately funded organisations that exist to conduct research into social issues and influence politicians to formulate what they consider to be better social policies. These built environment ‘think tanks’ will often require planning expertise to help them negotiate the concepts around planning.
Think tanks with an interest in the built environment include the Centre for Cities, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Planning Futures, Create Streets, and Future of London. If you are interested in politics as well as planning, think tanks are an interesting area.
Working in academia
A good number of planners work in academia, or balance academic work with work in the public and private sectors. As teachers and researchers they have influence over students, practitioners and policymakers, and will often conduct the original research that influences planning policy and practice.
There are many opportunities to volunteer in the sector, and it’s an excellent way to meet other planners, and to gain experience that is different from that of your day job. This volunteering could be through Planning Aid England or PAS in Scotland, or you could volunteer for the Royal Town Planning Institute through our committees.
Shaping the future
Whatever route you take, you can be sure that you’ll be working alongside a diverse range of professionals. I don’t think that anyone gets into the planning profession just to ‘get a job’; people join the profession because they want to make a difference to the world. Planning, planners and the planning system are at the heart of finding solutions to big challenges facing our society. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in shaping the places we live and work in to join me as a planner.
Nikola Miller is planning policy and practice officer for RTPI Scotland