Peers are such an important part of the work that we do. There is nothing quite like hearing from someone who has been in your position and experienced similar things. There is something quite comforting about knowing that you’re not on your own and that they have been there and come out the other side smiling. A peer visiting your Council can also become a part of your network or become a friend to lean on as you both move through your career.
This isn’t to say that all Councils are the same, far from it. There are, however, many shared experiences and this provides our network of peers with some unique opportunities to apply their knowledge to. Peers benefit enormously from the work that they do, and they tell us that they learn a lot from the Councils they work with. They then take this learning back to their Council where their own service improvement work continues. It should go without saying but this also helps peers to develop personally. This applies equally to Councillors and officers in a Council.
Our peers can work on Planning Peer Challenges, where a group of officers and Councillors go into a Council to provide an external perspective on their planning service, or they can work on more discreet areas giving advice on a particular issue or undertaking reviews of the different elements of a planning service such as the planning committee. The work is varied and provides as much benefit to the peer as it does to the host authority. This is the joy of sector led improvement.
Peers should have relevant and comparable experience to the authority they are supporting. Councils look for these qualities when they are choosing which peers to invite in. They should also be able to understand the demography and cultures of the communities that Councils serve. This helps to build and keep trust throughout the work. It is also more likely that the Council can get wider buy-in to the recommendations and any action plan that is created to make the improvements.
We have a great group of peers and whilst we try to use them sparingly, they do have day jobs after all, we find ourselves calling on the same people time and time again. On the upside, this means that we have a very experienced peer pool but, on the downside, it creates a capacity problem and means that we are not creating a diverse pool with opportunities for everyone. This is something that the PAS team wish to address.
We started a conversation with Helen Fadipe, Sara Dilmamode and Gavin Chinniah of the BAME Planning Network. This wasn’t just about our Peer network, but it became clear from our early conversations that this was the place to start. Helen explained to us that BAME planners working in local planning authorities do not have the same access to senior positions and would, under our current criteria, be prevented from being peers. Conversely, being a peer gives you the range of experiences that can help you to get those more senior positions.
We have been working over the summer to change our criteria so that it is more inclusive, basing our requirements around experiences rather than seniority. We hope that by doing this we can encourage a wider range of people to come forward and apply to be a PAS peer. We have also broadened the scope of the experiences that we require, recognising that it’s not only planners that do planning.
As we start to enter a period of change within the planning sector, we are starting to see an increase in the demand for peer challenges, with Councils using the peers to help them respond to changes and challenges. It’s a really interesting time to be a planning peer.