Urban Vision’s Careers Advice: Working in consultancy support services to enhance career progression

Balancing service costs and revenue in a modern planning department and achieving service sustainability is a very challenging task. Demand on the service can be unpredictable as it rides the ebbs and flows of the development market, yet most planning authorities choose to do this on a fixed cost base.

So, what does this mean for planning careers? In the first instance, staff with a wide range of knowledge and skills become immensely valuable gatekeepers of a sustainable service but can also be put under significant amounts of pressure as workloads increase. Furthermore, in some cases a fixed model can reduce the amount of career development opportunities for staff within their own organisations with many looking for new challenges elsewhere as a result and presenting that council with a resilience issue if they leave.

As part of achieving service sustainability, more and more councils are turning to the private sector or agency staff to turn the resource tap on and off as a way of managing these dips in demand or when they have short-term supply issues. This proposition should not be perceived as a threat to staff development but rather an opportunity. For example, some consultancies provide planning support services to councils nationally and where such firms are engaged, the intent is to ensure that the support provided can work seamlessly with the existing staffing structure working as required in a complementary way, and without limiting opportunities for existing staff.

If implemented correctly, this type of contract can be the ideal two-way staff development opportunity. External staff bring their experience of working in a variety of different environments and schemes on applications of varying levels of complexity to the in-house environment while the embedded team provide place-specific detailed knowledge and expertise. Thus, it’s a rich knowledge sharing opportunity.

Career development is a key strand of contract management. By opting to work within a company that provides councils with resilience by staffing up, savvy planners are able to take advantage of the offer of quick career progression as there are more opportunities for work at all levels, driven by the customer demand. Because organisational structure is not tied rigidly to one council or contract, it allows for something more organic, with progression driven by competencies and operational excellence rather than being tied to vacancies within a rigid structure.

One of the aspects of providing resilience services which is constantly changing is the extent to which services can be delivered remotely. Again, this can make propositions more attractive for staff as a recruitment or retention measure by avoiding a traditional “bum of seats approach”. For example, a customer came to us recently asking if we could help them deal with a large backlog in applications. They gave us access to their systems and policies and we were able to process the whole batch without having to set foot once in the customer’s offices – in today’s modern world there was simply no need to. The officers in our local office were keen to get involved as it provided a very different planning context.

Never before has the link between the built environment and community prosperity been so evident or in greater need and while regeneration and housing shortages bring many headaches, planning officer capacity needn’t be one of them and it can in fact present huge opportunities for successful careers to be forged.

This was first published in Planning Resource magazine.