Planning for a bright future

Forget the stereotype - town planners do a stimulating and important job, and are in demand, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

When sexy job descriptions were handed out, town planners were in the wrong queue - they got saddled with one of those eye-glazing, yawn-inducing titles that is so general it tells you nothing. When you meet someone in planning, your heart tends to sink almost as low as if they had uttered that insomnia-curing phrase, "I work in IT".

When sexy job descriptions were handed out, town planners were in the wrong queue - they got saddled with one of those eye-glazing, yawn-inducing titles that is so general it tells you nothing. When you meet someone in planning, your heart tends to sink almost as low as if they had uttered that insomnia-curing phrase, "I work in IT".

But the reality is far-removed from that stereotype. Planning is a varied, stimulating and important job that requires intellect, sensitivity and creativity. It is about balancing the manufactured with the human, shaping our physical surroundings so that they're in harmony with the people who occupy the space. Planners have to grapple with these questions: when does architectural innovation become an eyesore? What's the difference between originality and bad taste? Why shouldn't someone open a nightclub or a fish farm next door to you?

The pay is modest to begin with, but, with experience and responsibility, can climb steeply. A planning-assistant post after graduation might start at £13,000, but ascend to £23,000 within two or three years. A 30-year-old, with around seven years' experience, in a middle-management role, should have passed the £30,000 mark.

Demand for planners in the public sector is huge, particularly in the South East, where space is at a premium and there's the challenge of building the 4.4 million new homes the Government says are needed. Planners are needed at every level of the public sector. Central government needs them to devise and implement strategic policies ranging from devolution, to housing and transport. Local authorities need them to manage change on a smaller scale. National parks, housing corporations, utilities and transport authorities could also not operate without them.

The body governing the profession is the Royal Town Planning Institute (www.rtpi. org.uk), whose 18,000 members comprise most of the planning practitioners in the public and private sectors. To become a member, you'll need a qualification accredited by the institute (either a first or a postgraduate degree) and two years' practical experience, often as an assistant in a local-authority planning department.

The Institute's website lists 22 universities offering accredited first degrees, and a similar number where postgraduate courses, of varying lengths, can be taken. The advantage of the first degree is that it presents a slightly quicker route into the profession, with the additional attraction of a smaller student debt. The second option, given the specialism and rigour of postgraduate work, may lead to an accelerated ascent of the promotion ladder.

Victoria Hills, who is now working as a senior programme and policy officer specialising in transport at the Greater London Authority, did a geography degree at Wolverhampton University, followed by a two-year Masters in town planning at Newcastle University. "What I love about where I work, and planning in general, is its diversity. You can work on many different levels, and can move around within specialisms. Skills are interdisciplinary, and knowledge easily accumulated," she says.

Joanne Smitton has just finished her four-year undergraduate course in town planning at the University of the West of England, which has included a placement with a local-council planning department, and a field trip to look at transport planning in the Netherlands. She found her four years informative and enjoyable. The course covered a diversity of subjects, all of which have stood her in good stead for a career in planning, she says.

Whichever route is chosen, all accredited courses cover the core knowledge essential for all planners. This includes the purpose, method and philosophy of planning; where the built environment ends and the natural environment begins; the political and legal context of planning practice; and areas of specialisation within planning.

A trend in recent years has led to planning decisions being taken, as far as possible, with the co-operation of the affected population, rather than being handed down from on high. This has made communication skills far more important, says Dr Dory Reeves, who chairs the Institute's education committee.

Dr Reeves has been busy recently because the institute is set to launch a raft of fast-track postgraduate planning courses. These one-year Masters will be available at 13 universities in the UK from September. This will cut the time taken to qualify, and open careers in planning to people from a wider range of academic and professional backgrounds, says Dr Reeves. "It's very exciting for the profession."

education@independent.co.uk

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