Five skills you need to succeed as a Planner

By Deborah Smith, Director

There are many skills and traits needed to be a successful Planner, some may come naturally, others are gained through experience. When we recruit our team members, we place as much emphasis on these skills as we do technical qualifications as I think these are what set a good and a brilliant planner apart.

1: Perseverance

The planning process can be long and drawn out. Application procedures, stakeholder consultation, objections and negotiations can all cause major delays and it requires real commitment to see things through sometimes.

One project that was a test of my perseverance was Beech Road, Elswick which took us almost five years to secure planning for. This was a relatively small scheme and I would never have anticipated it taking so long. In November 2014, we were approached by an Architect to advise on whether a scheme of two bungalows would get planning permission. Although there was a shortage of housing in the area, it was unlikely that the site would meet planning policy as it was within a field without any natural links to neighbouring areas and would have ultimately stuck out like a sore thumb in the open countryside.

We did, however, see potential in the scheme and proposed a strategy to combine the site with neighbouring land which would create a natural extension to Elswick. Our intention was to undertake this, jointly, with the neighbouring landowner and promote the site through the Local Plan. Unfortunately, we did not receive a response from the landowner and, instead, he progressed with his own planning application for 50 houses, excluding our plot of land. Following an appeal, his scheme went on to be allocated in the Fylde Local Plan whilst ours didn’t. We didn’t allow this to deter us as we knew the potential for the site. In time, we were able to submit our own planning application for nine houses but then faced more delays as we clarified details regarding an unadopted grass verge adjacent to our site. The delays meant the Fylde Local Plan was adopted before we secured planning permission which could have resulted in a refusal of our scheme if the authority found it to be contrary to the Local Plan. In fact, we were able to demonstrate compliance under Countryside Policy by promoting the scheme as infill development.

After almost five years, we secured outline planning permission for six houses. Persevering through many unexpected delays and challenges meant that a very worthy scheme could go ahead.

2: Patience

Patience is obviously required to deal with delays like the ones I mentioned above but, as important, is having patience with people.

Working with local authorities means there are many internal and external forces that might affect your planning applications and we need to allow for those. Resource and budget constraints are two of the most common challenges we come across and we have to be patient and understanding when a planning team has conflicting priorities and limited time. Getting to know the local authorities you are working with to understand their drivers, how they work and their individual personalities can help with this.

Also, private sector clients may not be familiar or comfortable with the formality of planning processes which can result in them being frustrated with procedural matters. Understand that they have their own priorities and that delays may be costing them time and money. Being patient with your clients and guiding them through this process is so important.

And finally, we need to be patient with wider stakeholders. Whilst it might not be favoured by some clients, it helps to be proactive with a consultation. Giving members of the public an outlet to express themselves can be a defining factor in a planning application and I would encourage planners to consult on any scheme that may attract public interest. It takes time and patience to hold open consultation events but not doing so can cause delays later. I recently worked on a scheme where over 400 objections were received, largely due to a lack of public consultation.

3: The ability to multitask

A planner might be working on a major planning application but also be responsible for multiple smaller pieces of work, all of which are likely to be time-sensitive. The ability to juggle multiple projects and priorities is essential.

I find it helps to break projects down into smaller tasks, which can be scheduled in and managed more easily. This enables you to set out and plan short, mid and long term priorities for both day-to-day duties and the preparation, submission and management of planning submissions with deadlines of 8 or 13 weeks.

I have taken this approach when working on the Dolphinholme Neighbourhood Plan. It is a project that will probably take five years. Breaking it down into smaller ‘mini-projects’ means it can be managed on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I have defined the various stages including multiple public consultations, stakeholder and local authority engagement and the production of several draft reports. For me, a ‘master’ list is essential, together with a numbered day list – I couldn’t operate without it.

4: Foresight

When I started out in planning, I was lead to believe that there was only ever one answer to a planning challenge but experience has taught me otherwise. I believe a Planners’ success is dependant on their ability to identify and weigh up all options, think of every possible eventuality and make a judgment based on that knowledge.

An example is when I worked on a planning application for Dingle Farm, Middleton. The application for bespoke housing for people with autism covered Green Belt land. We considered what this meant for the application and were aware of significant resistance to Green Belt development in Greater Manchester. We identified this as a risk to the scheme and made recommendations relating to public consultation. Adverts in the local press, Facebook promotion and a letter drop were undertaken. As a result, we were able to engage with representatives of opposing groups and the planning application progressed with very few objections. We were able to foresee the potential for objections and proactively managed this to prevent any delays to the scheme.

5: The ability to work well as a member of a team.

As planners, we engage with many different people and organisations and being a team player is so important. We work as part of large multidisciplinary teams, often adopting the role of project lead, managing internal and external teams, and leading on public consultation. To do this well, we need to listen to those we are working with, take the time to understand and empathise with them; and build authentic relationships that promote trust.

Before I started my career in planning, I worked in retail roles at weekends and during school and college holidays. I learnt what it meant to be part of a team and to work with others in a cohesive, efficient and positive way. As I was in a public-facing role, I also began to understand how important interpersonal skills are when communicating with your customers, as well as your colleagues, something which has stuck with me since.