Natasha Blackmore Da Silva, Assistant Planner at Sheldon Bosley Knight, recently spent a day at Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) as part of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)’s ‘Chief Planners of Tomorrow’ Initiative that provides young planners with the opportunity to experience public sector planning from a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective. In this blog, Natasha shares some thoughts and experiences about her brief time in the public sector…..
The main purpose of my day was to engage with public sector planners and gain insight into the decisions and challenges the senior management team face trying to balance public services, fiscal constraints, the expectations of stakeholders and the effects of politics.
I had the opportunity to engage not only with the planning team but also the senior management team and the directors.
“If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organisation.” Mary Douglas.
The way we use the planning authority is changing – more applications than ever are being submitted online, correspondence is via email, and the telephone has become the primary means of communication. It only follows that these changes should prompt planning authorities to change the way they are run. The senior management team at B&NES call this a “Culture Change” and it is more difficult than you think to provide planning advice for a modern and ever changing world.
Maintaining its efficiency and capacity in the face of the modern world means changing the way the department is run day-to-day. The Council is increasingly encouraging employees to work from home when possible to avoid unnecessary commutes into the city and the consequential vehicular pollution.
My first meeting of the day involved reviewing the Department’s ‘Home Working’ Protocols to ensure that both employees and customers were getting the most from the exercise. This included automated responses on emails indicating alternative numbers to call, accessing emails online from home, and performance reviews. The Managers note that it has taken a while for local authorities to realise that planning agents and applicants don’t care if you’re not in the office as long as they can get hold of you.
It’s more than just determining planning applications
Like many private sector planners I was under the misapprehension that planners spend their whole day at their desks deciding the fate of our applications. However, I have learnt that this is far from true and there is much more to being a public sector planner than just determining applications.
Over the course of one day I was presented with only a fraction of the challenges and issues that the senior management team faces. Some are planning related, for example, new policies and information that need to be taken into consideration when determining applications; others are more administrative challenges such as confidentiality issues and website navigation problems.
It was also interesting to see how B&NES tries to engage with service users on other platforms, for instance, the Agents Forum which allows agents to provide feedback on how the planning service could be improved. .
The second part of my day involved a case busting session in which the whole planning team discussed recent case law and policy amendments that could affect how they interpret the wording of policy when making decisions.
We also reviewed a few recent appeal decisions that the senior managers felt were important for all team members not only to be aware of but also to understand the decision fully and use to support their future decisions.
A word with the Director
My meeting with Lisa Bartlett, Director of Development & Public Protection, offered me some final nuggets of wisdom. The main thing she wanted me to take away from the day was that ‘Communication is Key’. This is not as simple as it seems, but it is important that public sector planners try their best to communicate sufficiently due to the large number of people planning decisions can impact directly and indirectly.
Bath Spa is a truly fascinating place with a mix of listed buildings, heritage assets, and modern structures. It is only logical that the planning department would walk the fine line of protecting the past whilst also preparing Bath for a modern and more forward thinking world.
I am grateful to the RTPI for arranging this opportunity and to Lisa Bartlett and the senior managers at B&NES for sharing their time and wisdom. It was a privilege to participate in such an incredible educational opportunity and I hope that this initiative continues to expand so that more young planners can benefit.