8 July 2019
Photo Copyright: Royal Town Planning Institute
It’s been 25 years since Planning Director Gary Morris joined WYG. As he tells it, those years have whizzed by quickly, but the enormous changes to his environment in that period portray the passage of time a bit differently. At the dawn of his career, computers were luxury items assigned to select few desks, emails had yet to hit their stride as a communication tool, and copious dissemination of information from planning encyclopedias was something of an initiation test.
A versatile, proficient planner and a champion of diversity and inclusion in the built environment sector, Gary has proven himself a credit to his industry. He’s one of several people at WYG celebrating long career service milestones. We sat down with him for a chat to learn more about his journey and perspective on the planning industry.
Where did you picture your career going 25 years ago?
I never thought about it. I just went through the normal process of going to university (Cardiff University), getting out and looking for a job. I had two offers out of the gate: one was a compliance officer role with a city council, the other a junior role with a small planning consultancy. Contrary to my dad’s advice, I took the planning job and never left, and that firm later became WYG. The fact that change has always happened around me means I’ve never felt the need to go looking for it.
How did you end up in planning?
My university degree was in town and country planning, a very vocational degree that just led me down that path because it allowed me to spend time outside university in lots of different planning environments, including 14 months in local government.
I’ve always been interested in the interaction between people and spaces and the potential to create and shape the environment in which we live and function. It was always the human geography side of things - rather than the physical geography, geology, and those other facets – which excited me.
What do you enjoy about planning?
It’s a great profession because it’s so varied, with many different angles you can approach it from. You could be working on an application for wind farms in the Scottish isles, or a distribution shed in Kent, or new superstore in Tyneside. That’s the beauty of it.
If you speak to someone in WYG’s Cockermouth office, they’re doing something completely different from what I’m doing in Bristol. There’s a great deal of knowledge sharing there. If you’re in the private sector, public sector, or you’re in-house with the client, you’re going to get a different experience. I personally enjoy the hands-on experience you get at a consultancy like WYG.
What are you working on these days?
Throughout my career, I’ve done a lot of work for retail planning, working with clients like Sainsbury’s – who I used to work for in-house while on secondment back in 2006 for several months. I also worked a lot for telecoms companies Three and O2 in the early 2000s rolling out their 3G networks.
These days, my scope has broadened to all kinds of planning. Of late, I’m still kept fairly busy by Sainsbury’s but increasingly involved with work related to storage and distribution units, a few housing schemes and a large project related to advertisement consents for digital billboards. That last one makes most people run to the hills because it’s a very specialist area, but I find it interesting, especially because it has let me work with planning colleagues from nine different WYG offices.
How have you changed personally?
I would hope I’m a bit wiser now than when I started. Like anyone after 25 years, you develop and learn from the people around you. The work you do changes, the company changes, the sectors change.
Which of your sectors would you say has changed and how?
Certainly, the retail sector has changed a lot. The move to online retailing is impacting their work, meaning there’s less of it around. Retailers don’t need to keep expanding if they’re selling more stuff online. We’re helping them with that challenge, adapting their existing real estate so it’s still relevant in an online era.
What do you personally find challenging about your field?
The legislation and regulations change on a regular basis, so you need to stay up to date to make sure you’re best positioned to advise your clients about the best possible approach.
Fortunately, it’s easier to access that information now because it’s all online. When I started, we had rows of encyclopedias to stay informed, all of which had to be updated manually from inserts that arrived in the post. Now it just gets updated online so you always have access to the latest version. Updating the encyclopaedias was a rite of passage!
What are the biggest challenges facing the planning industry in the UK right now?
I think a major challenge for our clients is a general lack of resources in local governments. And then there are inconsistencies between councils in terms of their funding. The reduction in funding for local governments and all public services has been quite noticeable over the last ten years, but it bites at some point. That’s obviously not unique to planning, as you could draw parallels to most services, whether it’s schools, the health service, the police services, you name it.
Why stay put all these years?
My colleagues make WYG a great place. A couple of them have been here almost as long as me, so it feels like a family. I’m also quite lucky in that my work allows me to work with our teams in the North, Northern Ireland and down here in the South.
Beyond that, I’ve had opportunities to branch out of my daily planning job and shape the company in a way that makes us more attractive to clients and colleagues. I’m really enjoying helping to steer WYG’s efforts to become more diverse and inclusive. I want us to be the best business we can be where everyone has the same opportunities to achieve what they want to do.