Two Days as a Town Planner – Work Experience Review

By: Recruitment Consultant, Ben Young

When I was 15 years old I did one week’s work experience at my local garden centre. I think it is fair to say that I didn’t take much away from it, other than the realisation a career in horticulture wasn’t going to be for me. Moving forward a decade or so, last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days with one of my clients, East Cambridgeshire Council, in work experience within their Planning team.

I’ve been recruiting Town Planners into Local Authorities at the Oyster Partnership for close to two years now, and I like to think I now have a pretty good understanding of the job. Nonetheless, when I was offered the opportunity to spend a few days on the ground in a busy Planning Department, I knew it would be a great opportunity to continue to develop my understanding.

Day One

The first day saw me up at 5:30am ready for my early train from Kings Cross. Coffee and pastry in hand, I boarded for the hour or so journey to Cambridge, where I then jumped in a taxi and made my way over to East Cambridgeshire District Council in the picturesque City of Ely.

On arrival at the office, I met with Planning Manager, Rebecca Saunt, who was kind enough to take me under her wing for the days ahead. Rebecca told me of the busy day ahead including a Planning Committee meeting, from which she pulled a chunky agenda for us to review. First things first though and more immediately we had to go out on site visits. It’s fair to say that I had never fully appreciated how diverse the caseload is of a Development Management Planner, from a new 100m-gun range through to a proposed development site for 150 new homes, to some new mirrors at a riding stables.

After the site visits were completed it was back to the office to prepare for the busy meeting ahead. Kick off was at 2pm with doors opening at 1:30pm for the public and Councillors to arrive. To be honest I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. As somebody who is new to Council meetings, it felt as though I was in a real life, much better version of Judge Judy.

The first application up for consideration was for the new 100m shooting range, one of the sites that I had visited earlier on that day. Although recommended for approval by the Case Officer, there was fierce objection from a local resident. After some deliberation from the Councillors and scrutiny put toward the Case Officer, the application was approved. It was really interesting to see the process first hand. Visiting the site that morning gave a proper perspective on the site when hearing the case in formal review at the meeting and I have to say I agree with the approval!

In total, the Planning Committee meeting went on for around five hours covering all of the cases required for that day.

Day Two

After checking out of my Travelodge I made my way to the Council office once again. After a short debrief from the previous day, I was out again on site visits with one of the teams newer Planning Officers. After having spent nearly two years on the phone speaking to Planners it was great to finally get my feet on the ground and see what a Development Management Officer gets up to on a day-to-day basis. I had never really thought about the number of factors that need to be considered when it comes to any sort of development, no matter how large or small. Whether that be neighbours overlooking each other, drainage, impact on the local highways, areas of conservation, increased sound…the list goes on.

Once back at the office, I was given the opportunity to sit in on a pre-application meeting with a Developer, a member of the public and one of the Senior Planners from East Cambridgeshire. The plan was to demolish an old industrial unit and build in its place a couple of houses. Being a fairly rural authority it was good to see they have a strong focus on maintaining the agricultural business within the area. One caveat that reflected this was that the industry taken from this site should be moved elsewhere in the district. After all, there’s no point in building houses if there are no jobs nearby, right?

It was great to see helpful and honest advice being given to help the applicant progress with their application. Changes were suggested and compromises were made, proving what an invaluable opportunity these meetings can be.

Seeing how pro-development the Planning Team and the Councillors were throughout my trip was hugely encouraging. I see it all too often in the news that in this country that there is a housing crisis. As somebody in their twenty-somethings, it’s good to see new homes being built, giving me hope that I may be able to make my first step onto the property ladder some day.

After a busy morning of site visits and putting notices up (they trusted me to stick one on a lamppost!), it was back to the office where I spent some time with the Planning Validation team, through to the Case Officer that then dealt with that application. Again, the number of factors that need to be considered astounded me! Without sounding cheesy, there’s a real sense of teamwork at this authority with more senior members of the team constantly mentoring and working closely with the wider team.

The final part of my work experience was an interesting one. It started with another meeting but this time with the Conservation Officer, a Local Architect and a local lady with grand plans to refurbish and develop a glorious old listed building. The majority of applications that I had seen on my visit were for new builds, so it was great to see it from a different viewpoint. It’s also nice to see how keen East Cambridgeshire is to hold onto their historic landscape. With so many historic buildings in the district, the dedicated Conservation Officer at East Cambridgeshire certainly have their work cut out!

The key pointers that I took away:

1. It is incredibly cold when standing in a windy field in early February.

2. The level of detail and knowledge that the Planning Officers at East Cambridgeshire go into when considering an application is immense. They had a tenable answer for any question thrown at them and were able to confidently satisfy any query from both the public in attendance as well as the councillors.

3. Getting out on site is incredibly valuable. It gives a real perspective on how an application that comes into a Local Authority can affect people in the surrounding area, as well as giving an idea of the scale of a new development.

4. Planners who work in Local Authority work VERY long days! Especially on committee days.

All in all, I can say that I took far more away from this work experience than I did from watering geraniums back when I was 15. It was honestly a real pleasure to be able to gain such an insight into the work that Planners in Local Authority do on a day-to-day basis, and often not without complicated challenges. I’d like to say a massive thank you to Rebecca Saunt and her whole team for making me feel so welcome during my visit and for giving this Recruiter an opportunity to see it from the other end of the phone!