Leadership in Planning

By Anna Rose,  Head of the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) at Local Government Association

For me, great leaders have vision, the better ones also work hard to make sure that there is a shared understanding of how to make that vision a reality.

This isn’t just true of local government but it is particularly relevant. There are great political and officer leads who can orate their enthusiasm for a firmly held vision to audiences far and wide. Of these leaders there are also some who can engage their own groups and teams. It is critical in local government that there is a shared understanding of how to realise the vision as there are a myriad of differing concerns, priorities and agendas to work with.

So good leadership is about so much more than vision, its effectiveness is reliant on communication. If a local planning authority (LPA) is the delivery arm of a leader’s vision they need to believe in and take responsibility for its delivery. Without this shared understanding the vision is just that, a vision.

This may sound a little philosophical but I worry that ‘leadership’ is a word that is used as frequently as ‘amazing’ and is similarly misused to complement other characteristics or attributes that whilst commendable are not leadership.

For LPA’s, the need for a leader or leaders who have a clear vision is evident. Many local plans are created in the absence of an overall vision for the place that is being planned. Decisions are taken without consideration of a desired outcome for anything other than that application. Is it any wonder that things don’t always go to plan?

If your destination keeps changing, you may get there but it will take a long time and you will travel further. Ring any bells?

For LPAs, it is essential that the political and officer leads articulate a desired outcome from the outset rather than changing this according to the most recent decision or consultation. This does not negate the positive influence of flexibility but it does ensure that there is a point of stability to test any new ideas against. It is the ‘spotting point’ when you are spinning. It is extremely difficult to remember the purpose of a plan or process if an iterative approach to the outcome is taken.

Leaders need to prioritise. Where this is done well it makes a HUGE difference to not only the productivity of the LPA but also the morale and wellbeing of the team. Public services adapt to the situation that they are put in but this can be handled so much better when there is leadership to guide the activity. This is as much about what to continue doing as it is about stopping. Teams that know what is expected of them will take responsibility for delivering it, the opposite is also true.

So, for me, an iterative vision leads to changing priorities and therefore inconsistency. Good leadership works on the basis of no surprises. Honesty and trust is a massive part of this. LPAs with effective leadership know how to deal with issues as they arise as they understand how their leaders wish them to operate. The absence of this understanding is usually built up from a history of inconsistent approaches and decisions at a leadership level. Inconsistency in leadership leads to inconsistency in service delivery.

Inconsistency inside an LPA reflects directly onto the community and customers of the Council. This leads to a poor reputation, built around a lack of trust and confidence. A poor reputation once gained is very hard to lose.

LPAs that know what they are working towards and how to get there are more effective and efficient. They don’t have to spend time searching for the directions. Needless to say – this improves service delivery and saves money.

Responsibility can only be delegated once trust is established. Planners with responsibility have more fulfilment from their role. Good leadership allows for that responsibility to be handed around and a bond of trust is formed. Leaders are stronger when they trust their teams to deliver and teams are stronger when they are trusted.

So yes we need great leaders but let us all commit to using the term responsibly.

Follow Anna on Twitter @EPlanna 

This blog was adapted from a presentation Anna gave at Planning Future‘s talk on leadership in planning.