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Josephine Ellis - Blue Kayak

Town Planner to Blue Kayak

Told to us by Josephine Ellis

Josephine Ellis - Blue Kayak

I’ve said before that I became self-employed by accident. That’s not entirely true. I became self-employed when, to my great surprise, it presented itself as the best option for me, personally and professionally.

I worked in local government for ten years, mostly in roles relating to the environment and community, and re-trained as a town planner in 2005-7. People sometimes think town planning must be dull. I say that if it is, it’s not planning you’re doing – it’s administration. Real spatial planning is about our relationship with where we live. Who isn’t fascinated by his or her home turf? We all care about whether we can find somewhere to live, what it looks like, and whether we can get from A to B. And we all care, or at any rate, should, about how we can make our towns and cities cleaner and greener, reduce carbon emissions, and protect habitats and wildlife.

However, when I was working as a local authority town planner, I came to feel that my job was about administration. I really wanted to work for better urban design and sustainable transport, but, instead, passed my days plodding through procedures. The first time I applied for voluntary redundancy, the boss asked me to withdraw my application; the second time, I suppose he must’ve realised I meant it.

Naturally, I started applying for jobs. Now, I’ve heard it said that you never get a job you don’t really want. That’s not entirely true – most of us, I imagine, have got jobs stacking shelves or filing correspondence that we were profoundly apathetic about – but things are different at a professional level, and, well, I didn’t really want any of the jobs I applied for, and I didn’t get them.

I was unemployed for three months. Then I received an email from a friend and former colleague, who worked for Durham Heritage Coast – a regeneration project in East Durham. He asked me to write his business plan for him.
I’d never done anything of the sort before. But I did know what the Heritage Coast did, and appreciated that it needed to demonstrate to the world how it was funded, and what it did with its money. I worked out a framework for this, and my friend provided me with the information I needed to fill in the gaps. It all worked out fine.

Similarly, following a chance conversation with another former colleague, I ended up fundraising for and managing a community development project. We gave people a taster of what it is like to run a small business by encouraging them to develop their craft or food skills, and then organising a community market for them to sell their wares. I’d never done that before, either, but I’d organised community consultation events.

I’m currently in discussions with a couple of environmental organisations, talking about how I can help them with their campaigning and strategy. This is really returning to my first love – talking about people and their environment.

Perhaps the most exciting thing I’ve got on, though, is that I’ve been asked to do some geography teaching at Northumbria University. It’ll mean teaching myself how to use a program that I hadn’t ever seen a couple of weeks ago, and getting to grips with some important local planning issues.

In each of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve found out that some skills and experience that I didn’t even count among my good points are actually really important. Things like the ability to organise, to think ahead, and to take on board a lot of information and put it into a more easily-digestible form. And my return to academia and environmentalism has validated and reinvigorated my enthusiasm for planning. I’ve been very fortunate. Other people have had the faith in me that I didn’t have in myself.

I’d say to anyone who’s considering self-employment – or, to be honest, any job-seeker at all – don’t underestimate what you already can do, nor your ability to learn what, at present, you can’t. Admittedly, if your opinion of your own abilities is too high, then your arrogance might lead you to fail. But if your opinion of your own abilities is too low, you are certain to fail, because you’ll never let yourself succeed.

You can find out more about Josephine and Blue Kayak HERE.

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