APC competency: The importance of planning

APC-SeriesKeith Thomas discusses the challenge of demonstrating the planning competency

An understanding of the planning process should be a fundamental requirement for most chartered surveyors given its important influence over the built environment. While an obvious core competency for planning and development (P&D) surveyors, it also features as a prime option in other pathways, including valuation, residential, rural practice, commercial property, geomatics and minerals and waste.

Planning is a potentially complex legal process and draws on a wide variety of specialist insight from environmental issues, social dynamics, equality and health to engineering and design. Most pathways are assessed to Level 3 (advice). In this regard, while welcomed, APC assessors are not necessarily looking for overtly specialist knowledge but rather seeking confidence in a candidate’s overall ability to work effectively with the planning process, guiding clients and/or employers through it and being able to interpret and direct other specialist input to achieve a good planning outcome.

Level 1

Planning is probably one of the most regularly reviewed and revised legal processes in the country. Candidates should seek to keep abreast of the latest changes and consultations on the planning process and be able to show an understanding of the issues facing planning and planners. They can expect questions at final assessment on topical issues from permitted development rights and community infrastructure levy regulations to delivery of local plans and housing development.

In setting the scene for their Level 1 knowledge and understanding, candidates should be able to articulate the core principles of the “plan-led” system which operates in the UK and the natural policy “hierarchy” against which planning decisions are made, including the default process in the absence of an extant local plan. They should also be aware that special policies exist to protect areas of environmental, civic design and historic importance at European, national and local levels, and that specific procedures need to be followed where any development proposals may affect the local context.

While candidates will be tested specifically on planning matters in the locality in which they work, they will also be expected to have an awareness that different planning systems operate in devolved parts of the UK and internationally and to recognise that the National Planning Policy Framework only applies across England.

Candidates can sometimes have too narrow a view of the “purpose of planning”, seeing it either to restrict or control development, rather than its wider purpose to “balance competing demands on the use of land”. Understanding this wider context ensures they also recognise the importance of dialogue, communication and negotiation throughout the planning process to identify key issues and seek appropriate planning solutions, whether that is in shaping new policy, mitigating the effects of new development or in resolving areas of potential conflict.

Level 2

Stepping up a level, candidates will need to demonstrate how they have applied their knowledge to particular areas of the planning process and talk confidently, using practical examples, about the actions undertaken. Assessors will recognise where they may have more specific experience in either the strategic planning process or in development management/application work. While providing more detail in one area, candidates will also be expected to show a good understanding of the processes involved in other aspects of planning.

Assessor observation tips

Many P&D candidates are engaged in strategic land promotion through local plans. They will be expected to demonstrate knowledge of the key stages of local plan production, the supporting evidence they may need to present in support of their case and the implications of the public inquiry process. Candidates involved in preparing or reviewing planning applications may be questioned on their involvement in pre-application enquiries, the research they undertook to establish their supporting case and the process of registering and determining applications. All candidates should be able to discuss the different types of planning application (eg the difference between outline, full and reserved matters applications) and the process involved in discharging or changing conditions and/or modifying planning consents.

Many struggle with this applied level of practical experience, especially those who may work “client-side” and often engage specialist planning consultants or agents to undertake the more detailed promotion or application process. These candidates will still need to demonstrate their knowledge and familiarity with the processes involved. While they will be tested further in their ability to interpret the advice they are given by their appointed consultants at Level 3, client-side candidates should consider opportunities to shadow their consultants more closely through a particular application to further develop their professional knowledge and/or seek opportunities for work placement with their advisors or other professional planning practices to help widen their knowledge and experience.

Level 3

This is where the assessors will be looking for total confidence in a candidate’s ability to interpret a complex array of issues and provide reasoned and justified advice and guidance to the client/employer. What are the options open to them to determine an application/promote a strategic development site and/or seek permission for their proposals? Indeed, how is it determined whether planning consent is required in the first place and/or how could a client be advised to modify proposals to minimise the issues faced in securing planning permission – either through permitted development rights, change of use and/or compliance to local policies or even political objectives?

Candidates should be prepared for most of the questioning to be at Level 3 in the final assessment as this truly tests their depth of knowledge and familiarity with the planning process and procedures. They will be expected to challenge and question the input which may be received from others involved in the process (even from appointed planning consultants) and make their own decisions on the applicability to their case or proposal and reflect on alternative options as to the way forward.

Throughout APC learning, while perhaps initially getting to grips with the regulations, policy guidance, legislation and procedures, candidates are advised to reflect on the decisions being taken and organise their own thoughts on the justification for particular courses of action and how they might work differently should they encounter similar situations in the future. This begins to develop a candidate’s own independent thought and judgment, which is essential as a fully competent planning advisor.


Hot topics

University-recommended texts on planning:

  • Town & Country Planning in the UK, 15th edition, Barry Cullingworth et al, Routledge
  • The Purpose of Planning – Creating Sustainable Towns & Cities, Yvonne Rydin, Policy Press

Example questions*

Questions will always be adapted to whether you are working in the public or private sector and could comprise:

Level 1

  • What are the key changes being proposed in the 2015 Housing & Planning Bill (England)?
  • What are the different types of planning application and why might you choose one over another?

Level 2

  • When you reviewed the planning options for Site X, what site-specific issues did you take into account to determine the potential to gain a planning consent?
  • What were the material policy documents you considered to inform your view?
  • What would the default policy position be if there was no adopted local plan?

Level 3

  • How would you advise your client on the appropriateness of any planning conditions?
  • How do you determine the evidence required to support a planning application or to promote a site through a local plan allocation?

*Don’t assume that the questions given here will be asked at an APC assessment. Assessors will focus on and pose questions on the basis of the candidate’s declared competencies, pathway guide requirements, up-to-date developed knowledge base and the examples provided in their summary of experience, etc.


Supervisors and counsellors: how to help

Ensure candidates gain experience of different aspects of the planning process, especially if they primarily work on residential schemes.

Encourage candidates to keep abreast of policy and practice changes through the professional press and online resources and are able to discuss the issues and implications with you and colleagues.

Get candidates to review planning decision notices to fully understand the issues taken into account in approving or refusing applications.


Useful resources

APC Presentation This online masterclass discusses key elements of the APC final assessment interview. Hints and tips at www.delever.com

APC Final Assessment Competency Revision Workshop This preparation day covers everything a candidate needs to know for the APC plus other useful resources: www.delever.co.uk/facrw

APC mock interviews An opportunity for candidates to practise their APC final assessment interview, including presentation and specific competency-based questioning. It comprises a full hour interview like the real thing and immediate constructive feedback from two assessors, including hints and tips on best practice: www.delever.co.uk/mocks

Supervisor and counsellor APC training/recordings – formal CPD

Guidance on how to appropriately manage and support candidates to get them through the APC. Free one-two hours of formal CPD: www.delever.com

APC Commercial Property Revision Guide Every forward-thinking APC candidate’s reference book for APC preparation: www.delever.co.uk/katetaylor

Timeline wallchart Free A2 pictorial view of the APC process that can be used to track progress: www.delever.com

APC Explained Masterclass This helps candidates to understand what needs to be done to achieve the APC, including a walk-through of the DeLever APC process timeline and myAPC Diary: www.delever.com

Trial myAPCDiary

A subscription to this product can save candidates 60% of their day-to-day APC administration: www.apcdiary.com

RICS APC Guides These should be read at least once every three to four months and fully understood. Candidates from outside the UK also need to check their regional websites for any local APC requirements: www.rics.org


Keith Thomas FRICS FRTPI is an independent planning and economic consultant working across the UK, APC assessor and DeLever APC coach

Click here for full access to Estates Gazette‘s Pathway to Success series on APC competencies

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