Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Planning Policy Officer at Bassetlaw District Council
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £20-30k more in other parts of the country.
I have been employed by Bassetlaw District Council as a Planning Policy Officer since November 2015, having interviewed for the position a week after submitting my thesis. I am writing this, however, on the day that I submitted my resignation. In September I will re-join academia, as a Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University.
My story starts in another part of Nottinghamshire; between the second and third years of my undergraduate degree I spent just over a year working at Ashfield District Council as a Student Planner. Ever since I have wanted to make a career that straddles the line between academia and practice. I enjoy teaching about my subject, I have a list of topics that I’d like to write about, and some questions that I’d like to research. But planning practice is where the decisions are made that will change places for better or worse.
Currently I am part of the Planning Policy Team tasked with developing the ‘Bassetlaw Plan’. This comprises a series of sites, designated for either housing or employment development; and a set of policies, which will be used to make decisions about planning applications, all of which will need to be underpinned by evidence. That sounds very dry, but, essentially you can argue that the job is about setting out ambitions for the future of places in Bassetlaw and putting in place policies to achieve them.
It’s a job that comes with a highly variable diary. We don’t have the capacity or expertise to write all of the evidence we need, so we spend time commissioning external consultants to prepare some of it, writing detailed briefs setting out what we want from them. Other days we’ll have back to back to meetings with a whole range of organisations, from other local authorities and public bodies such as Network Rail and the National Health Service, to big housebuilders and landowners. We’ll spend six weeks at a time getting out and talking to the public about what they think. We’ll go out on site visits. We’ll spend many frustrating hours at the computer collating and interpreting data, most often about what number of new homes we need to plan for. We’re also the kind of team who will regularly break off what we’re doing to have an in-depth conversation about an aspect of policy, often debating what types of policy intervention we can put in place to achieve particular aims.
In this way the role is what you make of it; I have a number of projects on the go and I like to switch between them regularly. Other colleagues prefer to focus on one project and see it through to completion. Currently I’m overseeing one study looking at the impacts of new development on local transport networks, and another looking at sites for an entirely new village I’m also trying to put together a workplan for preparing a new draft of the Plan, keeping abreast of the latest developments on the railways in order to advise our elected politicians, and trying to put down on paper the Council’s aspirations for new infrastructure.
I mentioned at the beginning that the next chapter of my story involves going back into academia, making it a good time to reflect on the differences and similarities between the two. From the outset, my justification for taking the job was that either it would be a great experience, and the start of a career in planning practice, or a not so great experience, which would give me plenty to write about for a journal article or two. Perhaps inevitably, it’s been a bit of both.
You do not need a PhD to do my job. However, throughout the experience, I’ve been struck by just how transferable the PhD skillset is to a policy-making role. You need to be prepared to read a lot, to research innovative ways of doing things and to engage with the detail of what is being said. Equally, you need to be able to analyse and synthesise material to recommend what should be done. Finally, you’ll need to be able to communicate with a wide range of groups, often being very careful to adapt your language to their level of knowledge. In other words, it really is a lot like going through the PhD process, but with a slightly shorter final document.
Conversely the biggest difference is that local government is not often a place for deep, intellectual conversations. My thesis was quite deeply rooted in planning theory, which blurs into philosophy quite quickly. Yet, in the day to day practices of planning, my colleagues would argue that theory has very little role to play.
Working in Local Government also has other frustrations. At the end of the day a lot of the Council’s work is oriented towards delivering high quality services, so the creativity of policy-making isn’t necessarily a natural fit. Equally, local government is ultimately a political organisation, so any big decisions are made by the elected members, and you won’t always agree with the decisions that they make. It also means you have to be extremely cautious about what information you impart to which groups; compared to academia conversations can feel quite closed. A lot of the time you’ll find your ambitions for making better places are thwarted by local government’s lack of money and lack of power, which can be very disheartening.
The upsides are working with a diverse group of people, in a friendly environment, that is, a lot of the time, less pressured than other workplaces. I also consider myself lucky to work in a team that sees the value in taking time out to debate to how best to address the issues at hand. Perhaps the biggest positive is being able to look at the policies being drafted and know which ones you influenced, with the knowledge that they may eventually shape the future of a place. I’m looking forward to getting back to teaching and having the time to write about my experiences at Bassetlaw. However, I will always be grateful to have played a small part in shaping the area’s future.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Local council websites.