A Day in the Life of...

Catriona Riddell

I started my career as a graduate planner in Surrey County Council in 1990. Following the abolition of the South East Regional Assembly in 2010, where I was Director of Planning, I established my own company which provides support on a wide range of planning issues for local authorities, but specialises in strategic planning, with a strong emphasis on partnership working. 


I am also the Strategic Planning Specialist for the Planning Officers’ Society (POS), Vice-Chair of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and an external examiner for Liverpool University, as well as a regular columnist for Planning Magazine.

 

What does your typical working day look like?

My day starts…

With coffee and catch up on emails.

During work …

Most days I am either running workshops which can be pretty much in any part of England or writing reports for them.  Either way it involves getting my creative juices flowing!

After work ...

Catching up with my family – husband and two teenage daughters.

On an evening ...

A good box set, catching up with friends of a music gig!

 

How do you unwind on an evening or weekend?

I travel around a lot and when I get home I like to chill with good food and a box set.I love all the Nordic Noir stuff but I’m not fussy, as long as it’s good tv with an interesting story I’ll watch it.I love live music and spend a lot of time at music gigs, either country music or 80s music but as long as it’s live, I just love the atmosphere.One of my two teenage daughters is also a massive country fan so it is also a way of spending time with her given that getting them in the same room as me is often a challenge!


During the winter months I play hockey for my local club, as do both my daughters so weekends tend to be spent travelling to various matches to watch or play.I came to hockey late in life through our club’s ‘back to hockey’ programme but I love it – the ladies I play with are great fun but it is also a great way of staying fit, both physically and mentally.

What is your favourite/most rewarding project you have worked on?

I don’t think I could pick one as I have been really fortunate to have worked on many different and exciting projects over the years and with some amazing people. If I had to choose though I would probably say that it was leading on the South East Plan which involved working with 74 councils, many different stakeholders and a very large multi-disciplinary team, as well as a four month examination in different venues across the South East.  However, many of the projects I’m working on at the moment are really interesting and rewarding, particularly the South Essex Joint Strategic Plan. 


This is one of the first of its kind and is being developed within a wider 2050 ‘place ambition’. The authorities are attempting to take strategic planning back to where it should be, integrating spatial, economic and infrastructure priorities and are taking a proactive approach to long term growth. There are significant challenges, including in relation to resources and skills and of course Green Belt, but the councils are all on a journey and I am privileged to be on it with them.

What are the best and worst bits about your job?

Best- the wide range of people I get to meet and work with, all from diverse backgrounds with different views on what planning should be about. I am happiest in my job when facilitating workshops and supporting any form of partnership working, whether it is with local authorities (officers and politicians) or stakeholders.

Worst - Admin!  Being self-employed I hate doing all the financial and other admin but fortunately it is a very small part of my job. The only other slightly disheartening bit of my job is when I work with young planners in local government who have only ever experienced a post NPPF planning system and don’t really get the opportunity and freedom to be creative and genuinely visionary.  I wish we had more mentors to help them see that not everything should be measured by how many houses get built. This certainly wasn’t what I did my planning degree for!

Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?

My very first boss at Surrey County Council, Roger Hargreaves, was and always has been my mentor throughout my career.  I was fortunate to have him guiding my career directly for the first 16 years. He always gave me constructive criticism – good and bad – but always let me make mistakes and learn from them.  Too many people are risk adverse now in their jobs but it is often the mistakes that provide the most valuable lessons and make us better people. Roger was the one that encouraged me to apply for the Director of Planning post at the South East Regional Assembly as I had just returned from maternity leave so was lacking a bit in confidence.  From my perspective it was too big a job when I had two little girls at home but, with a leap of faith and a lot of support, it turned out to be the best career move I made. It gave me an opportunity to work with amazing people, many of whom I still work with but in different roles,  but it also led eventually to me starting my own business, as a result of being made redundant in 2010 by the Coalition Government!.

Roger was also a real champion of women in planning in the 1990s when there were not that many around in local government but also more generally in the industry.  When he initiated a comprehensive shake-up of our department in the late 1990s, we ended up with three out of the four division heads being women (including me), all of which were relatively inexperienced in management.  It was a brave move and was not universally well received but proved to be the right one, thankfully! It was sink or swim! Roger also encouraged all three of us to become active members of the Planning Officers Society as it was very unrepresentative at that time. Our colleague, Hilary Herbert, ended up being one of the first female POS Presidents thanks to his support. Roger was very much ahead of his time!

What is the best bit of advice you have received in your career?

The first thing Roger said to me when I started as a graduate planner at Surrey County Council in 1990 was that planning was 50% technical and 50% political and that you should always stand in someone else’s shoes (especially councillors) to see things from their perspective.  Strategic planning involves working with many different partners and is therefore a mixture of a professional planning role and relationship management (or marriage guidance counselling, as I often describe it!).  I have lived this advice my whole career and it has always paid dividends.

What is your favourite place?

I have been very lucky to have travelled around the world and visited many fantastic places. New York is probably my favourite destination but my favourite ‘place’ is the Isle of Bute in Argyll.I’m an Argyll girl and this is home for me when I need to refresh physically and mentally.We have a place on the island as do my parents and many other members of my family, so this is where we spend many family holidays and share in all family events.It is a beautiful place and represents everything that a place should be. Although I’ve lived in Surrey for nearly 30 years, Bute is where my heart is.

 

©2018 by Women in Planning UK.

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