making the most of opportunities

This post was written for RTPI Scotland to outline what I learnt from representing RTPI Scotland on the Scottish Government’s Town Centres Review Advisory Group.

Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to represent RTPI Scotland on the Scottish Government’s Fraser Review of town centres. I jumped at the opportunity: it’s not every day that I’m offered the opportunity to influence future government thinking.

You can read all about what the Fraser Review says in its report; it’s all good stuff which I support. What I want to explain in this blog is the value for me, as a planner, of volunteering for something like the Fraser Review. I think that’s important because it’s opportunities like this which make planning interesting, which help our professional and personal development, and which help to move the profession forward. All you have to do is make yourself available.

The best opportunities in my career have been when I’ve put myself forward. For example, masterplanning an urban extension at Bishopton in Renfrewshire after the munitions factory closed, when my local authority employer needed a planner to help take the project forward; volunteering with Planning Aid for Scotland, and learning so much from community engagement to running a social enterprise; going to Indonesia with VSO to work in community development, way before it became part of the political agenda here; and working with inspiring and experienced Scottish planners like Willie MillerKevin Murray and Richard Heggie after I became self-employed. If I hadn’t put myself forward at each of these opportunities, my career and experience would have been much poorer.

As the RTPI representative on the Fraser Review, I learned a huge amount. Meeting a whole range of planners across Scotland to get their input to the Review showed me what good work is already being done. Working alongside other members of the Review group, covering everything from culture to finance to entrepreneurship, helped me understand planning’s positive role as part of a collaborative approach to helping town centres. Collaborating with civil servants in writing the town centre elements of the draft Scottish Planning Policy demonstrated how it is possible to have a real influence on future change in a small country like Scotland. And it’s impossible to over-estimate the value of meeting senior politicians like Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the Review’s emerging recommendations from their point of view.

My point is not to boast about these things. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s to demonstrate that the simple act of volunteering one’s time – whether at work, Planning Aid for Scotland, the RTPI or a community group – can lead to so many opportunities, experiences and connections. It can take your career in fascinating new directions. Twenty years ago, as a graduate planner processing planning applications, I had no idea I’d now be helping government ministers work out how to fix struggling town centres. The point is, those opportunities are open to anybody. All you have to do is make yourself available.

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