My NIPA story: it’s all about learning and playing a part in ‘the big stuff’

15 December 2022

Viral Desai MRTPI
Practice Director- Planning, Environmental Consenting and Communities at AtkinsRéalis

I don’t think I knew what a DCO planner was when I was a student considering my first steps into a career (something we need to change ASAP). But the buzz I get from problem solving, strategic thinking, delivering projects with impact, and learning all the time makes me so glad I’m doing what I’m doing. This is my NIPA story and I’m pleased to share it.

My first career steps were taken at Shropshire Council when I was fresh out of university and exploring what I could do as a town planner and delivering a very innovative Infrastructure Delivery Plan. Pretty quickly I realised the part of that job that really got me out of bed in the morning was the opportunity to think strategically about investment, development, funding and infrastructure. Over 10 years have passed, a number of DCOs have kept my enthusiasm going for infrastructure planning, and now I’m leading a team of planners, EIA and sustainability professionals at Atkins (hopefully nurturing some people with the same passion for NSIPs as me).

I love the work I do with multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams where we’re all united by a common goal – which is typically to secure development consent – and bringing all of our brainpower, individual insight and specialist expertise together into collective decision-making and advice for the client.

It’s pretty cool in my view to be working on some of the country’s biggest challenges – from net zero and the energy transition to vital transport investment – and to be doing that surrounded by professionals who share my enthusiasm and, of course, to be contributing to real assets you can see and know you played a part in making possible. I love being involved in some of the largest projects in the UK. There’s nothing like working on the big stuff.

What I’d certainly say to my 21-year-old self now if I had the chance is to recognise the value of the technical knowledge but to appreciate the worth of being a rounded consultant.

At the start of my career I wanted to build my technical knowledge as fast as I could and that has merit – I’m glad I did. But what I also learned early is that being a consultant involves so much more than technical savvy. It involves communication with others, empathy, leadership, collaboration and a whole raft of soft skills that stretch way beyond the technical. And it’s this that fires me up now as I lead teams at Atkins and seek to coordinate the very best services and outcomes for our clients. It’s the opportunity to assemble, guide and run a team that motivates me together with the reward that comes with working together with and learning from others.

On which point, one of the main things I value about NIPA is the opportunity to learn. The opportunity to share with and listen to others. The opportunity to hear from peers how they have addressed and overcome challenges similar to ones I’m seeing in my work. Plus of course to hear from that broader range of voices within the NIPA family. The variety of professionals and professional disciplines within NIPA balanced with everyone’s mutual interest in effective infrastructure planning and delivery is the organisation’s USP in my opinion. It’s what really makes it special and gives it voice and value for our sector.

I was thrilled to become a NIPA council member and I would urge others to get involved in NIPA to benefit from everything it brings. It’s a genuinely fostering and sharing learning organisation and I think that’s fantastic. For someone like me with an appetite for continuous improvement and an almost restless approach to wanting to try new things, it’s a great place and space to have conversations. If you’re reading this and thinking about getting involved with NIPA, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to do so.

What’s next for me in the next 20 years? Who knows. But what I’m certain about is it will involve being part of teams that share professional commitment and personal passion for making a difference in infrastructure.

With the UK and the world needing solutions more than ever, I’m grateful to be doing what I’m doing and excited to have the chance to make a difference.