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Standing out in planning

Employment as a planning officer can make for a rich and rewarding career, though it can make for a difficult and often stressful job, with pressure from planning applicants, developers, architects, local councillors and residents who may object to developments all being brought to bear during the working day. To all of these people the planning officer is the go-to expert and those who have a little knowledge can often tie up unnecessarily large amounts of time with fallacious or misinformed queries. This is where the knowledge base of the expert planning officer comes in to its own, though, as anyone working in planning will know, the need to keep up with legislation, bylaws and guidelines across the board is paramount.

This means staying in touch with all legislation that can impact on planning, from building regulations to local planning acts, housing Bills, environmental legislation and energy conservation regulations. For example, in the latter case, new building regulations pertaining to energy efficiency came into force from 1 October this year, bringing with them a 25% cut in carbon emissions for developments and yet another set of regulations for planning officers to learn.

Keeping ahead of the game when it comes to new legislation that impacts planning not only makes planning officers more efficient at their job, but it also makes them a more attractive proposition for potential employers. Decisions made using last year’s regulations can be embarrassing and costly to put right, so employers in the planning jobs market will look more favourably on those who can demonstrate up to date knowledge.

This is especially true in areas where the law is changing rapidly and in complex ways, as is often the case with ‘green’ and environmental legislation, which may deal with anything from drainage management to use of sustainable materials. It can be beneficial to stay ahead of the game by paying attention to political debate in such areas as well as keeping an eye on Government White Papers. A planning officer who has the ability to second guess future changes is far more valuable to employers than one who is constantly playing catch up with new concepts. Including time or duties that allow officers to keep up with these details will make for a more efficient workplace and happier, more knowledgeable employees.

A case in point is the current Government’s initial statement on its plans for its first term in office, which included a large amount of material that is very relevant to the job of the planning officer. This included the idea of giving more power over planning to local communities, which has drawn criticism from some planning officers, as it may diminish their role and rely on the input of those without expert knowledge. There are also plans to allow the unregulated conversion of farm buildings to homes, return more power on planning decision-making to local authorities and the suggestion of the publication of a national planning framework.

Bodies such as the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) are among those who ensure that planning officers and town planners alike can maintain a position at the cutting edge of the industry thanks to a programme of lifelong learning. This works for new planning officers as well as for experienced planning staff, with the RTPI working alongside numerous high-profile employers to deliver a programme of continuing professional development (CPD).

“The RTPI believes that CPD is critical for planners to be able to deliver effective planning for local communities,” says Sue Percy, Director of Professional Services at the RTPI.
“There is the huge raft of the Government’s Big Society agenda and the Bill that is due to come through in December on decentralisation and localism. I think that will throw up some interesting challenges for planners in issues around climate change, community engagement, delivery on development management and finance. Those are things that planners will have to feel comfortable on in order to keep delivering.”

The RTPI will also be rolling out an online training portal, which will keep planning officers up to date with new developments from fast-changing areas of their work, such as those in legislation relating to climate change or issues around flooding and the increased power of communities in the planning process.

The sheer scope of the potential changes over the next five years mean that it is paramount that planning officers keep abreast of the way that their role is likely to develop. Those who keep their eye on the news and Government websites are likely to be at an advantage over those who do not and will be first in line for any new planning officer jobs that result from the changes.