How to become a town planner

Daniel Mason, Senior editor
September, 2015

Town planners are at the forefront of efforts to create sustainable places for us to live - meaning that your work will have a tangible impact on people now and in the future

'Planners shape the environment around us,' explains Andrew Close, head of careers, education and professional development at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). 'The job is multi-faceted, from looking at designs of a new town or garden city, to approving a proposal for a home extension or public square. The range is varied and stimulating.'

He says that the challenge for planners is to 'balance the demand for new buildings and land uses with impacts on the environment' in a way that benefits 'everybody today and future generations'.

You could find yourself advising local government on housing and flooding policy, helping to create efficient transport networks, working in urban design or environmental planning, or handling the application process for a new building.

Developing your skillset

'An interest in geography, history, design, law, politics or the sciences is a good starting point,' says Andrew. Among the skills you'll need are decision-making, problem-solving, communication, literacy, empathy and teamwork.

If you're looking to get an early start in the industry, there are technical support apprenticeships for school leavers. Developed jointly by the RTPI and the Construction Industry Council (CIC), these can lead to a technical or administrative role.

At a higher level, you can study an RTPI-accredited undergraduate planning degree at university. Alternatively, you could complete a first degree in a related subject - such as geography, economics or environmental studies - before taking an RTPI-accredited Masters in planning. Planning students can join the RTPI for free.

Andrew advises gaining work experience by, for example, contacting your local council to find out whether there are any voluntary projects that you could take part in.

Getting qualified

You can find a full list of accredited degrees on the RTPI website. Among them is Heriot-Watt University's MSc Urban and Regional Planning.

The Edinburgh-based institution is ranked fifth in the UK for town and country planning by the Complete University Guide 2016, and fourth in the UK for the subject in the Guardian's 2016 league tables.

'The course covers aspects of economic, social and economic theory, law and policy, and issues that are at the cutting edge of concern for both government and many private sector consultancies, including climate change, housing provision, and liveable places,' says a Heriot-Watt spokesperson.

During the one-year course, you'll learn key skills such as group working, policy development, report writing and presenting via a variety of methods and media. You'll also complete a research dissertation.

Finding a job

Once you've qualified and gained some on-the-job experience, you can work towards becoming a Chartered Town Planner through the RTPI. This will help you move into more senior positions and boost your earning power.

'Planning is the fourth most successful degree subject for employability, with 71% of graduates finding work within six months,' says Andrew. Starting salaries are around £28,000 for graduates, with directors earning up to £100,000. 'Chartered planners command higher salaries,' he adds.

The market for graduates in this discipline is buoyant, especially in the private sector. At the same time, many planners still operate in the public sector.

'Planners can work in multi-disciplinary firms, with architects, for local authorities or environmental agencies, or as self-employed consultants,' says Andrew. 'They can also become involved in major projects throughout the world, so you may even get the chance to work overseas.'