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Working in Lockdown; Adapting to the new normal

Written by Rachel White, Planning Consultant

With yesterday’s announcement of an extended lockdown, it seems pertinent to write about how we’re adapting to this ‘new normal’.  There is no denying that we are living through surreal times. You only have to turn on the radio or check social media to be inundated with bulletins about the current state of affairs. The effects of the pandemic are far reaching, with everyone affected in some way or another whether this be financially, logistically or emotionally.  It is unlikely that our generation will ever experience such change and uncertainty again. Yet despite this, we are successfully adapting. The property sector, and all of those working within it, are evolving and creating new ways to continue delivering high quality work and contributions to the sector. And the majority of these solutions are evolving remotely.

As a young professional working for a dynamic and flexible consultancy, home working was an arrangement I was familiar with prior to Covid-19. Whilst I may have spent the occasional day working from my living room, adapting to full time home working certainly comes with both challenges and opportunities. Since Boris Johnson’s initial advice to ‘stay at home’ on the 16th March I have completely overhauled my working arrangements. The kitchen is now my office and I am managing to successfully submit planning applications, advise clients and even engage in CPDs from the comfort of my home. How did I make this transition? I have outlined my  top tips for adapting to home working below.

Routine, routine, routine!

I am a creature of habit. Ordinarily I never go anywhere without my diary and always have my days and weekends planned out with social events, sporting activities and fitness. I thrive off structure so adapting to home working has its challenges in this regard. For me, I have found that introducing a routine to my day allows me to maintain some ‘normality’ and allows me to distinguish between work and down time more easily.

I set an alarm and practice good morning habits. This usually comprises some form of exercise followed by breakfast and a cup of tea with my boyfriend to discuss the day ahead. Doing this enables me to begin the working day with a clear head.

I always take a lunch break and try to go outside for some fresh air. Often this is just 10 minutes in the garden with my lunch but it’s enough to provide a mind break. At the end of the day I make a conscious effort to do something non-work related, whether this be a walk, catching up with a friend (over FaceTime of course) or playing a game, I’ve found that this can help me relax into the evening more easily.

Establish a good working space

Many of us will be adapting to not only working from home, but also new or different living arrangements. Whether that be staying with friends in a shared house, back with parents or family or staying with a partner it all takes adaptation. Trying to organise yourself in an unfamiliar environment can have its challenges. However, one of the first things I did when I started working at home was to set myself up with a good work station. Having this set space allows me to draw boundaries around my working day and shows others in the house that when I’m occupying that space I’m in ‘work mode’. At the end of the day, coming away from that space and properly switching off allows for that distinction between work and home which can be harder to find when your commute is walking from the study to the kitchen!

Continue socialising

Whilst we can’t physically socialise at the moment, this doesn’t mean that our social lives should be put on hold. Ordinarily I work in a very happy, friendly and fun office environment. We may be physically distant, but we’ve all made a conscious effort to engage on a social level. Most phone calls, whilst usually about work related matters, generally begin with a good catch up as you would ordinarily do in the office. We’ve introduced office quizzes as well as WhatsApp groups and team messaging. All of these interventions allow for the usual office chat to continue and can make you feel less alone whilst working remotely.

Engage in CPDs, online content and other opportunities;

The amount of online content and information being produced at the moment is immense. Everyone is going above and beyond to continue to engage digitally and there are so many opportunities to continue learning in this time. I have been involved in a number of CPD sessions which have been held over Zoom as well as registering for webinars giving legal and policy updates. Signing up for these events not only allows you to enhance your knowledge base, but they can often give a dynamic addition to your day and allow you to engage with others in the profession.

As an office we have been attending, albeit virtually, a variety of events and then feeding back to the wider team at our weekly meetings to ensure that everyone benefits from the information.

As well as engaging with online content, I have also taken on new roles within my current job. I’m managing our website to ensure that project successes and interesting thought pieces continue to be published at this time.

Limit your digital consumption

Whilst there is so much valuable online content available, both related to work and in the wild world of social media, striking a balance is needed at this time otherwise it can be difficult to properly disconnect and switch off. We all recognise the importance of keeping up to date with the news and current affairs, but I for one can find the continuous updates overwhelming. As a result I have introduced a ‘news quota’. I listen to the headlines in the morning and evening and then fill my day with alternative listening material to strike a balance.

When catching up with friends I make a conscious effort to pick up the phone and have a proper conversation instead of disjointed messages flying back and forth.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, and probably most importantly, we all need to be kind to ourselves at this time. We have never lived through a global pandemic, or national lockdown, or full time home working so expecting everything to tick along as normal is unrealistic. It’s OK to find this difficult to adapt to. It’s OK to not be your most productive and it’s OK to find the whole situation overwhelming. Finding your balance and working out a structure that works for both you and your employer is vital and will undoubtedly yield the best results both personally and professionally.


A Day in the Life of the Chief Planner

 Written by Georgia Crowley , Planning Consultant

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


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