Career as a town planner

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Helen Hall is an assistant town planner at a City Council, dealing with planning applications in the city's southern suburbs.

What do you do as a town planner?

I work in the development control section of the council which deals with planning applications. These can range in size from kitchen extensions to housing developments and new industrial parks. We have to make sure they are in line with council policy, and assess how they are going to affect the surrounding area and the people who live there.

What do you use to decide whether an application is granted or not?

The council has a Unitary Development Plan, which outlines what can and cannot be built. There's also general planning guidance from the government, and internal policies about issues such as disabled access. If it's in line with these policies we'll make recommendations to the planning committee to allow it.

What happens if you don't approve it?

If we have objections then we write a full, impartial report outlining all the issues that have been raised, and the committee makes the final decision. If we refuse an application the applicant has the right to appeal, and that can ultimately go to a public enquiry.

What about public opinion?

When an application first comes in we send out consultation letters to all the neighbours and any other interested parties, such as a resident's association. We then deal with all the responses, look at any issues that are raised, and take these comments on board as part of the decision-making process.

What about visiting the sites?

We visit all the sites to find out what issues are likely to come up. Often we'll meet up with the applicant and any local residents who have strong views.

What skills do you need for a career as a town planner?

You're constantly on the phone speaking to members of the public and developers, so people skills are important. You have to be diplomatic too and remain calm when people get a bit upset or agitated when discussing planning applications. You need good negotiating skills and to be able to consider conflicting needs.

You need to be able to read and understand plans, architects' drawings and maps, use scale rulers, and generally have an eye for detail. A good knowledge of the Town and Country Planning Act is vital, and it's useful if you can drive.

Do you use any specific equipment?

As well as computers, we use a planning database and a GIS mapping system to plot applications. On site we use basic tape measures and digital cameras.

What hours do you work?

We do 35 hours a week, on flexi time, which means I can choose my starting and finishing time. Some committee meetings are in the evening, so we take it in turn to go to these. Most of my time is spent in the office. I tend to wait until I've got a lot of sites to visit and then do them all at once.

Do your work alone or as part of a team?

It's very much a team job.

What is good and bad about your career as a town planner?

I enjoy seeing things built that I've approved, especially when it's a really good scheme. On the downside, you do get a lot of irate people on the phone, and it can be hard explaining technical details about an application, and why things have or haven't happened.

Is there any on-the-job training?

There are always in-house courses going on which cover the different aspects of planning and any new legislation. We've also had courses on how to deal with difficult customers and negotiation skills, as well as IT training.

What are your ambitions?

Once I've got my MA there are several different areas of planning that I could move into such as regeneration, conservation, and planning policy.

Helen's route to her career as a town planner

  • Degree in physical geography.
  • Support technician at a Borough Council.
  • Planning technician at District Council.
  • Assistant planner at Council.
  • Currently studying an RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) accredited MA in town planning on a day-release basis.

Helen's town planner tips

  • If you haven't got the necessary qualifications you've got to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.
  • Send out your CV to councils and consultants because any experience you can get – even in an admin post – will help.

Town planner related jobs

  • Chartered surveyor
  • Rural property surveyor
  • Architect
  • Building technician

Salary of a town planner

  • Salaries vary depending on the size of the local authority, and staffing levels within the planning department.
  • Assistant planners will start on around £17,000, while experienced planners can earn up to £35,000.
  • Some jobs are career graded so candidates with the right qualifications and experience can move swiftly from one level to the next.

Career as a town planner

  • To become a town planner you will need a qualification accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).These include full or part-time degrees.
  • It is also possible to take a planning related degree such as geography, followed by a postgraduate planning qualification.
  • Some councils prefer candidates to have some experience.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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