The impacts of austerity on local authority services have made stark headlines in the media and are felt by many of us. Social care, library services, rubbish removal, leisure amenities and other front-line services come to mind.
But the impact on local planning, which has borne the brunt of these cuts in many areas, is less well known but no less devastating to society.
The National Audit Office recently concluded that the planning system in England is “underperforming” and is not working well in terms of achieving the Government’s target of 300,000 homes per year from the mid-2020s.
It made it clear that this must be understood in the context of reductions in local authority capability, highlighting the 38% drop of core funding for planning functions in local authorities in the last seven years.
Various RTPI studies, including one conducted with the help of CIPFA data on resourcing, revealed the same worrying story. They found that even with the 20% increase in planning fees and rising funding from pre-application advice and planning performance agreements, income from development management falls far short of covering the cost of planning applications.
This shortfall is further compounded by the extension of permitted development rights, which deprives local authorities of developer contributions and impose on them extra responsibilities.
Our latest research showed that these cuts combined with rounds of planning reforms have relegated planning to a largely reactive, regulatory function in many local authorities, undermining planners’ ability to do proactive planning and the system's ability to deliver in the public interest.
Why does this all matter?
Because a well-resourced planning function, strategic planning in particular, gives us the best chance to deliver the housing the country desperately needs. Our research on large-scale housing in the South West of England found that all of the schemes studied were the product of statutory strategic planning processes.
The Government’s focus on delivering “affordable housing” through the planning system allows it to add 41,530 new “affordable” homes in England in 2016-17 compared to the previous year.
But this major achievement has been dependent on councils having the right staffing levels to deliver local plans, to process planning applications and crucially, to negotiate with developers on conditions and agreements to get building underway.
That S106 is increasingly crucial to the delivery of housing and infrastructure means that local authorities need more capacity – more staff but also leadership and training - to become more effective in the face of powerful developers and their lawyers.
Many local authorities are so frustrated with their inability to control delivery that they have begun to directly deliver housing themselves. Planning permissions are being granted at a record rate (over 350k permissions granted in year to June 2018 – rising for the 7th year in a row), but this has not been matched by the number of starts. If local authorities are now expected to deliver more housing, they will need extra funding to ‘unlock' sites.
Planning matters also because it is one of the most powerful tools local authorities have for stimulating the very economic growth which would help them balance their books.
The fact that, according to the NAO, local council’s spending on planning and development has only dropped relatively mildly by 15% is testament to planners’ ability to raise significant direct income to help plug the gap.
But let’s be clear, there is a huge planning resources issue - both in terms of the capacity of the function in local authorities and in the funding of public amenities.
The well-being of planning is, of course, not only a question of funding. Leadership is crucial.
This is why the RTPI is campaigning for Chief Planners to be represented at the highest levels of local government. Our research found they are absent from 83% of council senior leadership teams. Their reinstatement would be an important step towards providing the necessary join-up between investment strategies at local government level.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of Public Finance magazine.