Proud to be TheTownPlanner
Town planning is one of the most misunderstood professions. Town Planners have been dealt with a confusing job title.
What is a planner? There are wedding planners, family planners, and financial planners. Adding the word ‘town’ in front, doesn’t help much either. How do you plan towns? My usual response “I deal with planning applications” never expressed my pride in my profession nor help in its understanding.
Back when I started out as a planning assistant in 1987 in London, I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure what the job entailed. I soon found out that the job involved visiting buildings, reading plans, appraising proposals against local plan policy and writing reports. What was there not to like about a job that involved my favourite things; plans and architecture?
I enjoyed negotiating on proposals and adding value by gaining improvements to the design and alterations to overcome objections. Building work in London took place quickly. Therefore, I got to see the finished developments that I’d played a part in and gained job satisfaction.
I loved being a planner. However, it was apparent to me that people didn’t love planners! We are perceived as bureaucrats either promoting or standing in the way of development. It was and still is a no-win position to be in. We are always open to criticism by those aggrieved by the outcome of the decision-making processes.
Having progressed up the ranks in my profession to now becoming an independent planning consultant, it has become more evident to me that the planning profession is misunderstood and that is the reason why we are so disliked. Afterall, I hadn’t really understood what a planner did before I entered the profession so what hope is there for the person on the street?
Planning generates strong emotions; mainly anger. With age comes wisdom and having suffered at the wrong end of that anger on many occasions, my mission is to put that right and promote my profession. It is an opportunity to try and change hearts and minds. A big smile and honesty always help. When I achieve any level of understanding I consider it is a job well done. If people don’t really get what planners do after seventy years since the first Planning Act then I must accept my mission is a slow burner.
The knee-jerk reaction to the criticism for many planners is fight or flight. As a young female planner, I had learnt early on from my peers to avoid admitting to my profession in both social situations. “I work for the Council” was my stock response, even though it usually generated conversations about bin collections. If my guard was down, the conversation inevitably focused on dormer roof extensions and conservatories: not how I wanted to spend my time out of working hours.
The reputation of planning is not helped by alarmist newspaper headings and sometimes poorly researched TV shows and magazine articles. I’m sure I’m not alone as a planner in that I shout at the TV when presenters get planning information wrong, mix us up with other professions or wrongly criticise us. However, I’ve gone one step further in my mission. I’ve started writing to magazines to correct them when I get wound up about the wrong information they are publishing and the consequences for their readers if they take on their wrong advice. I rarely get a response, but it makes me feel better that I’ve at least tried. I consider that it is my role to help dispel planning myths in the hope that it will eventually improve the lives of my colleagues and future planners, as well as help individuals and communities avoid enforcement action.
I believe that the more people out there who understand what planning is, how it works and what planners do, then this must surely be for the better. Planning is about supporting and building communities and not the imposition of ‘planners know best’. If more people are enabled, then more people will engage in the planning process rather than taking a back seat and criticising it when it doesn’t turn out how they want it.
Planners should be getting outside amongst communities and understanding their needs; drafting and adopting polices to achieve those needs; and finally, facilitating the delivery of development on the ground in compliance with those adopted policies. There are many steps to be taken on the way to delivery, but planners are there to help people through the processes in the most effective way. It should not be an obstacle course.
My mission remains an uphill struggle. From my extensive public sector experience, I know what it is like working with limited and declining resources and the ever-shifting goal posts. The constant changes to planning regulations, policies and processes are not always for the better. The changes inevitably introduce more bureaucracy, which opens planners up to even more criticism as decision-making grinds to a halt. It is a vicious cycle.
Whether we work in the public or the private sector, we are all planners. We’ve all had the same training, which has been endorsed by the Royal Town Planning Institute, so we all need to work together to promote our profession. We often hide behind the jargon, which gives the impression of superiority to others. We need to act as interpreters or even better, just use plain English in the first place. Planning isn’t that complicated and shouldn’t be promoted as such through jargonistic regulations and policies. We need to demonstrate that we are not bureaucrats and instead we are on the side of protecting our shared built and natural environment for future generations.
Whether I succeed or not in positively promoting my chosen profession, I am very proud to be TheTownPlanner!