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Starting your own private planning practice

31 May 2016 Author: Sarah Lewis and Katherine Pollard

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Have you thought about starting your own planning consultancy? Would you like to be your own boss, improve your work/life balance or focus on a particular field of planning?

Before you jump in there is some careful planning to be done first. To begin with you should take some time to think about what are your professional strengths and credentials and how do you want your career to develop? It can be helpful to ask a ‘critical friend’ who knows you professionally to give you honest feedback over a coffee. Having a good network of contacts is vital to successfully establishing your business, providing links to potential work, and you need to identify who these people are.

You also need to be aware of the day-to-day practicalities of running a small business. There are legal, financial and administrative requirements – they are not always onerous, but you do need to get them right and know where to go for specialist advice. Developing a sound business plan and marketing strategy will make the process much simpler and our advice on Starting your own Private Practice can help you to do this.

One RTPI Member who has made the move to become an independent consultant is Nick Wright.

Nick

After graduating in 1990, Nick started his planning career in what was then Clydesdale District council, before doing Voluntary Service Overseas in a community based housing association in Indonesia. “Although I didn’t think this at the time, in a way it was a bit like being an independent planning consultant because I had to generate my own work and do my own thing.” Nick returned to Scotland to work in a council and decided it was time to set up his own consultancy in 2003. “I’d been building up networks of people I knew and could work with and got ready to go and do my own thing... to have had the advice in the practice advice note then would have been invaluable because I can see the questions which it says we should ask ourselves, are important.”

Nick’s own top tips for becoming an independent consultant are:

1)    Networks are important - not only personally, so that you don’t sit in the house on your own and get lonely but also professionally, so you have people to collaborate with.

2)    Commitment is key - you have to want to do it and enjoy what you’re doing because if you’re half-hearted about it and not sure then you’re probably not ready for the amount of work that you have to do.

3)    You need to be able to turn your hand to do anything - “As the advice note says, you need to be able to run a business. Even if it is just you, it’s still a business. You have to be your own IT manager and book keeper. You can pay people to do these things for you, but that will then put pressure on your finances”. 

4)    Be forever curious! - always think about learning. “I’m always curious to learn something it becomes more interesting and opens horizons. If you’re doing your own thing you have the freedom to do that so it’s quite a privilege.”

Like most other jobs, the practicalities of managing a diary and emails are fundamental. It’s important to find a system that works for you. Nick is a fan of using collaborative applications such as Dropbox, Doodle and ‘the cloud’. “You have more freedom to use them if you work on your own as you don’t have corporate firewalls” he said.

Freedom and independence are defining characteristics of being a sole practitioner. “One of the great things about being self-employed is that you can choose what to do with your time. I’m sure that half the reason all of us are so busy is that we can choose to go and do things such as lecturing…you always learn a lot.” This freedom also means having the chance to learn to use social media or even write a blog which can be difficult if you work in a larger organisation.

The practice note demonstrates being a good planner is only a part of what makes a successful independent consultant.

In order to continue his professional development, Nick says that RTPI and Planning Aid have helped him do things that he wouldn’t have been able to do through paid work. “You meet people, learn what’s happening and where things are going in the future.” Being involved in the RTPI is great for meeting people who you might collaborate with in the future. Nick works closely with the RTPI Scottish Executive Committee and volunteering for Planning Aid gave him the opportunity to do things such as organising community engagement events and running an organisation by being a board member.

He concluded that being an independent consultant is challenging, but also a rewarding experience. “You can get a lot of satisfaction if you win a piece of work... you put the effort in and get the reward. Of course you can find this in any job but there’s something more gratifying, as you accomplish this yourself which helps to build confidence”.

The practice note demonstrates being a good planner is only a part of what makes a successful independent consultant. “Of course you’ve got to be a planner but that’s only 10% of the trick. There are lots of other aspects which are so well covered in the practice note and why it absolutely hits the spot”.

  • Starting your own Private Practice gives advice for RTPI Members on setting up as an independent planning consultant in the UK. It introduces the main issues to consider, highlights support from the RTPI and the requirements our private sector members need to meet.
  • The Independent Consultants Network is free for RTPI Members. It provides targeted information and provides a forum for independent consultants to discuss issues and share good practice.

Sarah Lewis and Katherine Pollard

Sarah Lewis and Katherine Pollard

Sarah Lewis is Planning Practice Officer, and Katherine Pollard is Policy and Networks Adviser, at the RTPI.