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How to be a successful town planner: Q & A with a property professional

Jo Davis, national head of planning, development and regeneration at GVA, answered our questions about how her career has progressed and the skills that graduates need.
There’s no one-size-fits-all method for starting out in the property industry. My advice to all graduates is to get as broad an understanding of property as you can early on in your career.

With over 20 years of experience of working in the public and private sectors, Jo Davis, national head of planning, development and regeneration at GVA, was the perfect person to answer our questions about a career in planning and development. In this Q&A, Jo looks back over her career and shares her experiences and her advice for navigating the industry.

When did you decide you wanted to become a planner?

My parents encouraged me not to leave making a decision about jobs until after university, so I knew that I wanted to study a vocational course that led to a career. A family friend who worked in town planning helped me to understand what a career in planning could entail and how it affected places. This crystallised my interest in geography and space into an ambition to study town planning.

I completed my masters in town planning in 1991. This was, however, during the recession of the early 1990s and there were not many property jobs available immediately after graduation. So I did a pub management course for around a year. Although it was a period of economic uncertainty, I didn’t give up on finding a job in planning, and, eventually, my perseverance paid off.

How can graduates get their start in property?

There’s no one-size-fits-all method for starting out in the property industry. My advice to all graduates is to get as broad an understanding of property as you can early on in your career, in order to develop your knowledge of property processes.

For example, if you were interested in planning, I’d advise that, as well as learning about residential developments, refurbishment or regeneration, you look at retail planning and the environmental impact of developments. In this regard, for me, local government was the ideal place for me to begin my career, as I saw the whole picture of the planning process, through working on projects such as Morlands.

What is the job of a town planner in the public sector?

My first role in the property industry was as a planner at Torfaen District Council, which is an area that includes new towns as well as declining mining towns. The major challenge in this role was attracting investment into sites that had low land values. After working there for about nine months, I moved to Mendip District Council in Somerset. I was involved in running their funding bid for the redevelopment of an old tannery site called Morlands. I had to coordinate an array of different concerns: balancing different commercial, ecological, environmental and economic factors that could be affected by the development.

How did you start working at GVA's Bristol office?

I had previously consulted GVA for commercial advice when looking at tricky brownfield sites, and, in March of 1998, I joined its Bristol office as it was introducing a planning function, becoming only the second planner and the first professional female in that particular office.

I joined the organisation as a planner and have progressed to become a senior planner, associate, director and senior director, eventually heading up the Bristol office in totality. This is in no small part due to mentoring I’ve received throughout my career, especially from non-planners, who have helped me develop crucial skills such as securing new clients and retaining existing clients. This personal development has kept me excited and energised about my career and is something that I take great pleasure in passing on to others.

What are the differences between planning in the public sector and in the private sector?

One of the challenges of working in the public sector is planning decisions are subject to whether there is sufficient political will driving the development. Although this was a great environment to learn about property, I eventually felt that I wanted to experience being able to drive decision making from an industry perspective.

What skills do property graduates need?

I always advise less experience colleagues not to underestimate the importance of face-to-face communication, especially as property is still very much a ‘people’s industry’. Property professionals need to be able to have difficult conversations and to read people’s reactions. Planning especially is all about change and communities can be nervous about this, so the ability to build relationships, with objectors as well as clients, is crucial.

Recently I was promoted to national head of planning, development and regeneration. The biggest shift that came with scaling from a regional to a national level is not being personally involved in some decisions and having to rely more on delegating work to keep things moving. This is something that I am still getting used to, but has become much easier over the course of my career due to developments in communication technology.

What are some key projects that you have worked on?

During my time at GVA’s Bristol office the planning team has grown from two people to 11. I’ve seen first-hand how major milestone projects have spring-boarded us up to larger projects. For example our work with local NHS trusts on Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital led to working with the South West of England Regional Development Agency on the former RAF site at Locking. Currently, I am working on key city centre regeneration projects with Manchester and Birmingham City Councils, and my job now is to make the best use of my team to grow and sustain GVA’s profile and position on similar projects.

What advice do you have for graduates in the workplace?

It’s crucial to have focused goals to work towards and to be open to amending these plans when circumstances change, as you can never predict the future. At the moment, because of my promotion, I have already achieved the goals I set out for myself for the next five years. Setting focused goals and creating plans helps with professional projects as well as with personal development.

I am now aiming to work on the firm’s executive board to continue driving the business forward to meet our own company-wide goals. For example, my employer recognises that the planning and real estate industry is behind the curve in terms of inclusion and so I look forward to helping the organisation achieve its goals of putting inclusion and equality at the forefront of the business. And, if my goals don’t work out, I’ll open a sandwich shop somewhere – it’s always good to have a backup plan!

Jo’s career timeline

  • 1988–1991 Completed a bachelors and masters degree in town planning at Birmingham City University.
  • 1993–1994 Worked as a planner at Torfaen District Council in Wales.
  • 1994–1998 Worked as a planner at Medip District Council in Somerset.
  • March 1998 Joined GVA (then GVA Grimley) as a planner.
  • 1999–2010 Progressed to become a senior planner, an associate, a director and a senior director.
  • 2014 Progressed to lead GVA’s Bristol office in totality.
  • 2016Promoted to national head of planning, development and regeneration.

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