Jennifer Russell: One planner’s journey back to university
In a guest blog for RTPI Scotland, Jennifer Russell discusses her role as town planning manager at the University of Glasgow.
According to RTPI employment statistics, 59% of planners work in Local Authority, 30% in the private sector, 9% in the third sector and there are only 2% who work in ‘other’ fields. I am one of the 2% with employment in the ‘other’ category, having moved away from more traditional planning roles into the higher education sector. Ten years ago, I took a job working for the University of Glasgow in their Estates and Commercial Services team. At that time, I was the only in-house town planning professional working within an estates team out of all the universities in the UK.
Typical estates team tends to be made up of Chartered Surveyors, Quantity Surveyors, Architects, Building Services Engineers and Project Managers. Town planners were not seen as an essential role within the traditional estate’s teams. Perhaps they were seen to be too niche or, more likely, the skills that planning professionals bring are often misunderstood or not recognised. Yet the type of work that universities are involved in, such as caring for and maintaining complex historic buildings, converting and refurbishing existing buildings, designing and building new facilities, are all areas where planners can add considerable value.
Why was the University of Glasgow different?
The estates hiring director had previously worked in a local authority, working closely with town planners in development management and policy. There was an appreciation of the role and the influence planning professionals have, as well as the value these skills bring to a team. The university recognised that they needed someone to help navigate the organisation through what is described as the third biggest development phase in the institution’s 560-year history – their development of the former Western Infirmary Hospital site which sits adjacent to the university’s main historic campus in the west end of Glasgow.
A role was created for an in-house town planning manager who would work alongside fellow built environment professionals and lead on the complex strategic planning initiatives. The role would provide in-house expertise on the planning system, lead the preparation of the planning frameworks, influence design teams and build strong relationships with the local authority and local communities.
Before this role was created, the university, like many other organisations, relied on external consultants to offer planning advice and services on a project by project basis. The university took a hands-off approach that saw consultants undertake pre-application discussions and negotiate on their behalf. This approach works well in circumstances where projects are limited in scope or few and far between. However, the downside was that it led to a loss of knowledge upon completion of every project. More fundamentally, it had led to a lack of trust within the wider community. Community leaders at the time felt the university was too distant and their preference was for the University to lead its own initiatives.
Major development with timescales spanning from 10 to 15 years requires an altogether different approach. Having internal experts who can uphold the vision, retain knowledge of the process, decisions and discussions to date, build and maintain relationships and work through interconnected consents, required in-house expertise, specialist knowledge and dedication.
Having spent the early part of my career working in local authority with a focus on the development of brownfield land and urban regeneration initiatives, I understood the challenges involved in preparing frameworks, masterplans and policies which lead to successful development. I viewed the role at the University of Glasgow as a unique opportunity to be involved in the planning, shaping and delivery of a new urban quarter from the earliest stage through to being able to be part of the construction and delivery on site.
In the 10 years I have worked at the University I have had a pivotal role in establishing the Campus Development Framework which set the development principles and outlined how the university intended to approach the campus expansion. I was able to shape the framework and put place-making and effective engagement at its heart. This framework led to and informed a campus masterplan, and this eventually gained Planning Permission in Principle in 2016 for the hospital site.
After achieving the initial consents, the campus development project has now reached an exciting milestone with three of the new major buildings and the related public realm now under construction.
My experience in the role
My role is challenging and continually evolving environment but it can also be very rewarding. It helps to bring structure and a way of encouraging people to think about the desired outcomes before agreeing the best route to deliver it. I get satisfaction from knowing I play a small part in helping students gain lifelong skills through a positive university experience. I am also able to see the tangible link between planning and the creation of innovative and inspiring spaces for staff to undertake ground-breaking research and teaching. I love the fact I can make a difference to my home city and contribute to the success of the University of Glasgow.
My role adds value by encouraging others to consider the big picture and work towards a vision as opposed to delivering piecemeal development. I can challenge more traditional thinking by encouraging others to see the merit in good urban design and in the value of collaborative working.
The Higher Education sector is perhaps an unusual destination for employment for a planner beyond the world of academia. This should not be the case as the growth and expansion plans of many universities up and down the country would benefit from more planning professionals. Planners can help lead major transformation and I would like to see more organisations of all sectors recognise the value in town planning to help any achieve development ambitions. Planners should be part of every successful team!
- Jennifer Russell is Town Planning Manager (Estates & Buildings) at the University of Glasgow. She is currently involved in the ambitious campus redevelopment plans supporting the University of Glasgow’s world-changing campus, leading on planning strategies, master planning and capital and refurbishment projects delivering teaching, learning and mixed-use facilities