A Day in the Life of the Chief Planner (by Georgia Crowley)

 

Steve Quartermain CBE is the head of the planning profession in the UK, having taken up the role as Chief Planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in 2008. He is a trained Planner, a life-long civil servant and an iconic face in town planning in the UK, a profession he has promoted extensively and championed the role of throughout his career. So, how did I feel walking into MHCLG to shadow the Chief Planner earlier this month? Nervous and excited, to say the least.


The Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) ‘Chief Planners of Tomorrow’ is an annual programme which offers young planners the opportunity to gain first-hand insight into what it is like to be a Chief Planning Officer. MHCLG was one of over 20 planning authorities across the UK which took part this year. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a tour of MHCLG, attend meetings and speak to Steve Quartermain and some of his colleagues about their jobs and the workings of the department.


I wanted to take part in the programme because in my first year and a half working in the planning industry (at Lichfields planning and development consultancy), I have become acutely aware of the political nature of my job and the inherently political decision making in town planning. I believe decisions made by the government and politicians have a direct impact on what is happening on the ground in this industry, like in many others. I consider my job as a planning consultant to constitute town planning ‘on the ground’ and therefore I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what happens at MHCLG.


MHCLG consists of a number of teams within the Planning Directorate itself, including a design team (currently focusing on the National Design Code and the response to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission) and an infrastructure team. There are also separate but related teams working on social housing and the digitisation of the planning system. I was surprised at just how much the department does!


Of particular interest for me, the Planning teams write national-level policies that my clients and their developments must adhere to, oversee the production and adoption of Local Plans and make crucial decisions regarding development management and contentious planning applications (with the potential to be Called In by the Secretary of State), which ultimately influence future proposals.


This could not have been more apparent than at the meeting I attended between developers and MHCLG. They covered topics spanning Local Plan performance, the Housing Delivery Test, devolution of strategic planning, viability, the appeal process and much more. In the context of a Cabinet reshuffle and a number of highly anticipated White Papers being released in the coming months, there was clearly a lot to discuss. It was fascinating to see Steve and his colleagues ask diplomatic questions and test policy ideas in order to understand the perspective of a developer. This gave me an insight into how planners can be mediators between developers and political decision makers, to ensure that policies which are brought into effect work well while balancing differing priorities. 


One thing I noted about the job of the Chief Planner was that his day revolved around speaking to a variety of stakeholders. In the morning, he had a meeting with a Minister, then a ‘daily planning huddle’ with his team, catch ups with other departments linked to Planning and finally the developers meeting. He explained that there are many opinions to take into account; Negotiating these external and internal voices, being adaptable in different situations, problem solving, strategic thinking and leadership were key skills he had gained over the years. Steve’s main piece of advice was that the role of the Chief Planner is about the ability to make challenging decisions and therefore we must have ‘confidence in our competence’ to do so.


I had a thought-provoking day at MHCLG and really enjoyed taking part – thank you to the RTPI for facilitating and to Steve for allowing me the insight into his busy schedule! I would highly recommend the RTPI Chief Planners of Tomorrow programme to any young planners interested in understanding the challenges and opportunities that planning authorities deal with and learning about the responsibilities of a Chief Planning Officer. 


If you would like to find out more about the programme once it re-opens for submissions, please contact sarah.woodford@rtpi.org.uk.


You can read more at www.rtpi.org.uk/chiefplannersoftomorrow

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 Steve Quartermain CBE and RTPI ‘Chief Planners of Tomorrow’ participant, Georgia Crowley