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A day in the Life of a Chief Planner

Molly Gallagher from our Bristol office participated in the RTPI’s ‘Chief Planners of Tomorrow’ initiative, where young planners are paired with a senior leader from a Local Planning Authority for the day to see what it’s like at the top! Below Molly gives her reflections on a great day.

On Tuesday 25th March I had the pleasure of joining the Planning Team at Birmingham City Council (BCC) for the day, to shadow Ian MacLeod, Interim Director of Inclusive Growth, having applied to the RTPI Chief Planners of Tomorrow initiative. I owe a huge thank you to the RTPI and Ian and his team for providing the opportunity, time, and the organisation of a fantastic day.

Whilst I work in the private sector at DLP Planning, I am in the public sector team and provide  support to Local Authorities and other public sector bodies and ground across the country with plan making, policy and evidence studies. Having worked many times with, but never directly for, a Local Authority, I saw the RTPI Chief Planners of Tomorrow programme as a fantastic opportunity to see and experience the planning profession from within the Local Authority.

I feel that I was very lucky to have been matched up with BCC, not only to see the largest Local Authority in Europe at work, but also that the day coincided with Sue Manns RTPI Presidential visit to Birmingham, providing additional value to the day.

A break in the rain on our tour of Perry Barr, with Sue Manns (RTPI President) and Ian MacLeod (BCC Chief Planner and Interim Director of Inclusive Growth).

The day truly did have a packed programme. I took away a great deal of insight, and importantly, it proved to be a really positive experience that has given me confidence and energy from meeting and talking to such accomplished and senior people who took an interest in my career. I would highly recommend this programme to anyone thinking of applying in the future.

The level of activity and ambition for the City  at the Council was fantastic to see, and during the day I experienced a wider variety of strategic matters, such as the experience of the Labour Council’s relationship with Central Government and  the scale of the LPA projects being undertaken . I could also see how planning at the Council was being undertaken, not as a technocrat exercise, but one of partnerships and practical on the ground delivery. I have certainly taken away a more a rounded understanding of the approach within Council’s,  that I will take with me in the work we do at DLP for Local Planning Authorities.

On the day

Having met up with Vicky Madden, my fellow Young Planner shadowing on the day, who was also my wonderfully helpful City guide (New Street Station being my main previous interaction with the city), we arrived at BCC and were greeted by Ian and the Planning Policy Team.

The site visit to Perry Barr was certainly a highlight, where we joined Sue Manns and the RTPI West Midlands group for a tour and presentation on this major residential redevelopment scheme in the north of the City. As Sue remarked, in 2022 when the project is complete, people need to know and realise the role that planning has in creating this, and we need to champion the profession to the public on high profile projects such as these!

The Perry Barr Residential Scheme underway

We were met on site by Ashley Innes, the BCC Project Manager of this ambitious development. There was a great deal of activity to be seen, especially from the wide view from the top floor balcony of the contractor base, with work cracking on at pace to meet each critical milestone. We were shown the new secondary school was being constructed, and ground works being prepared, and the on-site training facility for skills and apprenticeships.

As a planner, particularly one that is generally involved in setting the policy framework for Local Plans, it is always exciting to see projects coming to life. Ian and Ashley provided presentations on the planning work gone into the scheme, describing their roles all aspects from the master planning approach to the land assembly, negotiations and acquisitions between Homes England, Department for Education, Birmingham City University, and the CPO of private land. For me it was interesting to see the role that the planning policy framework had played – having identified Perry Barr as a strategic area for redevelopment in the Birmingham Development Plan., this allowed for the rapid mobilisation of a project around the site when the opportunity and funding suddenly appeared. It was great to hear the discussion of the priorities and focuses in the City Development Frameworks – real focus in Birmingham having declared a climate emerging is on developing their ‘Route to Zero’ approach to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Ashely Innes (BCC) presenting on the development of the Perry Barr masterplan

Vicky and I were then able to have a meeting with Sue, over a break , who generously took great interest in our careers. We were able to discuss all sorts of topics, including women in planning, ethics in the profession, and she impressed on us her advice on the importance of chartership and the value of the competencies of an RTPI planner abroad.

We re-joined Ian on his back to back diary appointments, and sat in on a meeting with Adnan Saif and Russell Poulton from the West Midlands Canals and Rivers Trust. It was very interesting to listen to the approach to partnership working here – in presenting the key aims of the Trust and area of focus, Ian was able to look at the opportunities for alignment of the Trusts goals to those of the Council and where they could work together. Again, it was very interesting to see how the Council’s strategic priorities and agendas always at the forefront of discussion, the Council’s ‘Route to Zero’ strategy again providing the hooks to open up areas of opportunity. It showed me the way in which productive and positive discussion can open up to find ways the Trust and the Council could work together in partnerships, and encouraging where they could input into policy development and future development plan production at an early stage.

Vicky and I with Adnan Saif and Russell Poulton from the West Midlands Canals and Rivers Trust

Ian’s last meeting by contrast was an issue focused management meeting with the Commonwealth Games Programme Manager, undertaken at incredibly fast pace, with a lot of ground to be covered in a short space of time. This gave a snapshot of the ‘Chief Planner’ and senior leadership role entails, covering matters such as staff and contractor management, problem solving, communication strategies, and decision making, and PR, which showed the breadth of understanding and skills at the top to keep key matters moving.

In a drastic change of pace which occurred following the meeting, we were given the chance to talk to Ian ourselves and get his advice to our ‘young’ selves. Amongst other things, he suggested the importance of experience in both the pubic and private sector; attending and appearing at enquiries to realise how important a robust case is and finally, imparting on us the importance of a work life balance.

I am very grateful to the RTPI for putting together this fantastic opportunity for young planners, and to Birmingham City Council for taking part and being brilliant hosts, and giving their valuable time. For me, experiencing the public sector work environment, and spending time with such senior and accomplished council officers, and RTPI President, was brilliant not only for their career advice, but also their engagement and interest in my future career, and their championing of the profession, was very motivating.

Sue Manns RTPI President presenting the ‘RTPI CHANGE Action Plan’ at Birmingham University https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/3723937/Equality%20Diversity%20and%20Inclusivity%20Plan.pdf

The view from Ian’s office at rush hour: how different will this look when the City Council’s proposed Clean Air Zone comes into action?

John HelyarA day in the Life of a Chief Planner