Byline: SARAH RICHARDSON
The planning officer's lot is not an easy one but the job does have great rewards, says Sarah Richardson
FROM pedestrianising Trafalgar Square to prosecuting illegal shop signs, council planning departments safeguard our environment and shape the way London will look in the future. Whether it is your job to slam Stella McCartney's rooftop shower or push through major regeneration projects, a planning officer has to find a way through a minefield of English Heritage diktats, amenity society objections and council policy. No two local authorities offer the same challenges.
Westminster City Council's Development Planning Services, for example, assesses about 10,000 planning applications every year - more than anywhere else in the country. This involves striking a balance between the needs of London as a world-class city and those of business and 245,000 local residents. It also means taking care of the special environment and heritage of Westminster while accommodating new developments.
Sarah Round, 23, has been working as a planning officer in Westminster City Council's planning department for seven months, since graduating from Liverpool University with a Master's in planning. Her workload, at present around 35 cases, is mainly residential planning issues in the north of the borough, although she also receives retail and shop applications.
"There are a lot of planning jobs going in local authorities all around the country - there's a real variety," she says. "I've always been a fan of buildings and the environment. My career choice grew out of my interest in conservation and linked into my geography A-level.
"Planning is based on policy and I refer back to council policy on everything I do," she says. "Sometimes you might go out and look at a site and appreciate that a proposal is totally unacceptable because it's blocking someone's light. On other occasions, it is not so clear cut.
"I probably spend an average of two days a week out of the office looking at sites. We make appointments with applicants in advance, discuss the issues on site with the applicants or the agent, take photographs, then come back, collate ideas and write the report."
Round will assemble all the paperwork and write a report making a recommendation which will then go to a senior officer for approval. A planning decision is then made on the basis of Round's reports, either by the department's head of planning or by a planning committee of three local councillors.
"If there are a lot of objections to the proposal then it has to come to committee," says Round. "When you receive an application you have a statutory three-week period to consult all the relevant stakeholders and then you've got eight weeks from when the case is validated to make your decision. …