This March we saw our longest standing member of staff, Ian Sowerby, retire from Bell Cornwell after 31 years.
Whilst being a member of the team for all those years, Ian is also the first ever planner to be recruited at Bell Cornwell back in 1987.
Ian saw the practice grow from a team of four in one office to a team of over 25 across 4 offices.
Having over 40 years planning experience and plenty of tales to tell, we wanted to find out more about Ian’s career and the changes he has seen throughout the years.
What is your background in planning? What made you want to become a planner?
I left school in 1974 with A-Levels in Economics and Geography and simply followed those subjects at degree level without any thought of a future career. At Middlesex Polytechnic, the only subject that really grabbed my interest was town planning. As someone who isn’t good at drawing, architecture was never going to be an option, but planning seemed to be a career that would enable me to become actively involved in the built development process.
I subsequently obtained my Masters in Environmental Planning & Design from Aston University, before starting my first job as a junior planner with Surrey Heath BC in Camberley in July 1979. I had no burning desire to work in the south-east, it was just the first job I was offered from several applications that summer.
I gradually worked my way up the local authority development control ladder at Surrey Heath (1979-1981 & 1985-1987) and Reigate & Banstead (1981-1985), before joining Bell Cornwell in November 1987 after an approach from Graham Bell – who I had worked with at Surrey Heath – as their first Senior Planner. As the practice grew, I progressed to Principal Planner, then Associate, and was made a Partner in 2001.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a planner?
It’s a good way of becoming involved in town planning and urban design but do use the early part of your career to decide which aspect of the planning profession really interests you and then pursue that objective.
Have you seen a lot of changes in the planning industry since you first started over 30 years ago?
Don’t get me started! My background is in development control (or development management as I now have to call it), so I’ll concentrate on that.
It seems to me that successive governments have sought to introduce change, but none have had the patience to see their policy ideas through to fruition, due to external political pressure.
The planning application process has become far more bureaucratic, principally due to the introduction of fixed time limits (which were very necessary in some local authority areas) and increased public scrutiny, coupled with open access to information.
Standard forms and validation checklists were also necessary to bring consistency to the application process, but they have had the unforeseen consequence of creating a tick-box culture that requires applicants to spend vast amounts of up-front time & money on technical reports which I sometimes doubt are even read. This creates inevitable delay and frustration for applicants and agents.
Whilst opening up the planning process has had undeniable benefits, it has encouraged a siege mentality in some local authorities, resulting in poor (or non-existent) communication, and a cut-and-paste approach which unnecessarily lengthens reports and discourages balanced decision-taking.
In my view, the short and simple attitude in the 1970’s and 80’s was more efficient and effective.
What do you feel has been your greatest work achievement?
I have always been pleased to give ‘clear realistic advice’ and help anyone with a planning issue to resolve.
Successfully helping to establish the Exeter and London offices is also a significant achievement.
What are your plans for retirement?