An account from an Enforcement Officer within the Town Planning industry

As it is the week of International Women’s Day we are looking to highlight some incredible women and their achievements within the Planning Industry. Today we are highlighting Kate Longley – a Local Authority Enforcement Officer.

Kate started her career as an Enforcement Officer in 2014, and in just 7 years has risen to work at a Principal level. She has a great reputation within the contracting market and is sought after by a number of Local Authorities.

Hi Kate, thanks for sitting down with us, it’s really appreciated, to start with, could you please explain your career path?

KL: No worries at all. International women’s day is such an important day, I just felt it was really important to speak and I’m happy to have a chat! My career path has been an interesting one. I started as an assistant at Basingstoke and then took a permanent role as an officer at New Forest. I then moved to another permanent officer role at Winchester before making the decision a few years ago to become a contractor. I have just started my own company, literally this week! This is a huge achievement for me as I feel I’ve overcome barriers in my life, worked really hard and I’m proud to have achieved the goal of becoming a director in my own company. It won’t mean much to everyone but I actually canvassed my social media and none of the females I know have a limited company – their partners did in some cases.

So was Planning what you thought you’d be doing when you left education?

KL: No, my route is quite different, I went to university and did a degree in Criminology and Psychology. I always wanted to be a Detective Inspector or Forensic Specialist! I left uni and the country was in a recession still and I was unable to gain a position in my desired field and was looking around for a graduate position and came across the assistant role at Basingstoke and decided to go for it! I remember answering some questions during my interview and just not having a clue about Planning, I think I mentioned about bird noise disturbing the neighbours if they had bird bath or something and I had to have curtilage explained to me a couple of times. However, they gave me a chance, and here I am.

Wow that’s quite a shift from the type of degree you did! It must have been quite a leap to make that jump into a field you had no knowledge of, but your career speaks for itself, you’ve excelled! What projects would you say you’re most proud of, or would say are your greatest achievements?

KL: I would say that I couldn’t name one specific case or project that I’m most proud of, however, definitely, my greatest achievement is getting my confidence back, going contracting, and moving from a job that I wasn’t enjoying. Contracting gave me the flexibility and experience to appreciate that I am good at what I do. It also meant I have worked in a different county (Surrey) on aspects I hadn’t before, such as Green belt, widening my expertise. I felt like I had hit a wall but now I feel valued and confident. I’m really good at my job and I’m able to say that I work really hard and I’m proud of myself for pushing and excelling.

Looking at your time in Local Authority, I know that Local Authorities are trying to make sure that everything they do is fair and equal, do you feel that at a Local Authority level, Planning is equal when it comes to opportunities and pay?

KL: I think it’s definitely getting better, but there is more to do, there are still instances where councils have sent out emails about Casual Fridays and have said things like “No distracting clothes in the workplace”, now without even saying it, that is aimed at women, that’s very unlikely to be for a man wearing shorts. Women have to think about what they are wearing – is it to low cut, am I showing my shoulders, does the skirt teach my knee etc.

Whilst everyone within permanent positions are salary banded there are different scales in each band. The patriarchy is so entrenched that women may not have the confidence to ask for anything above the bottom of the band when they start. Women are statistically less likely to go for a role that they consider above their skill sets, whereas men will often go for that role. The constant questioning and undermining of women’s confidence throughout their lives has a great impact on their career decisions. Also potential “child bearing”. I’ve seen it before where a Senior Planner has taken a year of maternity leave, a Principal position has become vacant and they haven’t even told her about it so she had no opportunity to apply, so in my opinion, the opportunities are definitely skewed towards men and people do it almost without even thinking! We all do, it’s just how society is.

With issues like that arising, what advice would you give your younger self?

KL: I wish I could tell my younger self that the hard work will pay off. I used to work 2 jobs when I was in a perm role, I was working so hard and feeling so down, but now I know my worth and I know I don’t have to stay in jobs that I don’t enjoy in order to progress. I wish I had the confidence to go and do something else sooner!

So on the back of the advice you would give yourself, what would you say to a woman looking to start on a career in Planning?

KL: I would say be willing to learn, read and research. Nothing is clear-cut, planning is often subjective, and you really need to learn as much as you can. Go in with an open mind, and have the confidence to ask your manager for regular reviews. Find someone that you trust to be your mentor and who can guide you, especially in your first few years. I think it’s really important that we as women (and men) support each other, especially in the workplace. There is sometimes a mentality that some women see other women as competition almost like we can’t all make it and will be hostile towards them, everyone should feel comfortable enough to ask for help, there is no such thing as a stupid question. I’ve had some strong female, and male, mentors who have had a really positive impact on my career. I have also had some experiences with hostile female colleagues who have had a real negative impact on my experiences.

In your role, what instances have arisen where you feel you’ve been treated differently to a male colleague?

KL: I do feel that I’m treated differently in some aspects, but I would say more external people, rather than internal staff. I often get the impression I’m treated in a less hostile manner than some of my male colleagues. Although I’ve had experiences in the past of Ageism “Oh why have they sent someone straight from college?” They always direct questions to my male colleague if I’m ever out on site with one, subconsciously, they always assume he is the Senior Officer, even if I’m directing the questions, or if I’m the one doing the mentoring. I think my issues overlap because I have faced a lot of ageism and sexism. I once had a complaint from a manager of a construction company saying that I was a distracting the builders on site because I was wearing a skirt. Cat calling on building sites is another issue. I do feel there’s a toxic masculinity within the construction industry. When I was new to the role I did find it intimidating. There’s a fine line when representing the council as well, you can’t say what you really want to as you have to remain professional.

I think that highlights the issues we have as a society and hopefully we’ll be seeing real change in the next few years. With regards to Planning, What’s the biggest problem that people in your industry are facing?

KL: Funding cuts. Easy. Every council is going through cuts. Restructures are happening widely and more often than not, these are controlled by a third party that won’t really understand the departments. They never allocate Planning enough funding, even though Planning is one of the only departments that brings in revenue for the authority. They often cut the officers, but the work keeps coming. There’s not enough people to deal with the work. Workload has gone up while the government continues to push councils to make cuts.

That’s very true! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us Kate, we really do appreciate it!

KL: No problem! I couldn’t miss this opportunity to be involved!

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