It was the Summer of 2005. Barely a year had passed since I had graduated from the University of Hertfordshire (BSc (Hons) Geography), and I had been working as a Planning Assistant in my very first job. South Bedfordshire District Council in Dunstable. Mostly, this consisted of checking planning applications. Making sure all the forms were filled in right, all of the relevant documents were included, the right fee was paid, and that it was all signed and sealed correctly.
I did that for 9 months. It wasn't that bad a job really - I had worse at university - but checking paperwork got a bit repetitive after a while. Then one day my boss Deborah called me into her office. The Head of Development Control, John Ellis, was there. What on Earth is up?
Deborah: "James, I get the feeling that you'd rather not be doing paperwork."
Me (thinking of the right thing to say): "Uhhh...I guess so...yeah?"
John: "How would you like to come and join me in DC?"
Deborah: "I think it will be good for you. To get some planning experience."
Me: "Wow. When do I start?"
That really didn't sound too good did it? But I could hardly hide the fact that checking forms was boring as hell for me. And this was a way out.
My first job was as simple as planning applications get. A homeowner in the lovely Bedfordshire village of Kensworth wanted to extend their home to the front, which under the planning regulations requires planning permission. The procedure for this is relatively straightforward, but what is potentially the most difficult part is public consultation.
At that point, public consultation was...basic. Send the plans to the Parish Council,the utility companies, and the highway authority to ask for their comments, and put notices up in the local paper and outside the property. If people wanted to comment, they write in.
"Its the way we've always done it" John said to me just as I was about to head out on site to post the notice. "This is a small app, so you probably won't get much."
A short drive through the rural lanes, and I was there. Common Road, the main road through the village. I pulled up by the kerb, got hold of the laminated paper and string, and got out. "Just find a lamp post, tie it up, then get back" I thought to myself.
As I was trying to the tie the knot, I saw an old lady approach me from the right. Shuffling up with her cane and shopping bag, in a pleasant old lady voice she sparked a conversation.
Old lady: "Hello there, young sir. Are you from the Council?"
Me: "Hi. Yes I am."
Old lady: "So what's happening here, then?"
Me: "I'm just putting up a planning notice. This house here *me pointing to the house* is putting an extension up."
Old lady: "Really? It's about time they did something with that old place!"
We then chatted for an hour. On the street on a bright sunny day in a Bedfordshire village, where I got the whole history of the house. How her friend from school in the 50s grew up there, and how they used to play hopskotch on the pavement outside. How it was then sold to 'a bit of a strange man, but you could rely on him to lend you a few bob.' Before the McKenzies who lived there at that time then moved in, and were as nice as pie.
"I'm glad they are doing up the place. It will be so nice for their kids as they grow up" she finished with.
It's really hard to explain, but something in me just clicked that day. The way that talking to the public has been told to me by so many people working at the Council was that it was a process. A chore that needed doing. A box on a checklist. You just...do it because you have to.
But having to can mean a lot of things. There is having to in order to satisfy a process, and there is having to in order to get something meaningful. To better understand the history and stories of the communities that you serve. To better understand people's lived experiences, and to understand them. We do public service to better serve them, right?
Many months then passed. The planning application was approved (no objections from anyone), and I moved on. The process of planning applications ground on as normal. More site visits. More notices on lamp posts and in the local paper. The one for the lion enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo was an interesting site visit, which involved the zebra looking on whilst I tied the planning notice to their fence post.
All the while, this little old lady stuck in the back of my mind. That whole experience, where in the space of an hour I actually got to know about the place and how what I was doing tied into it all, was rewarding. And how we were engaging with the public missed out on that.
Surely, we can do better, right?