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Roisin Willmott: Overstretched planners faced with an alarming level of negativity

Dr Roisin Willmott OBE FRTPI is Director of Wales and Northern Ireland and Planning Aid England

The RTPI has for some time been highlighting the need for more resources for planning. At the same time recognition has been rising of planning as a profession needed to address the significant connected and inter-twined issues society faces in one way or another – climate change, persistent poverty, health, economy, decline in biodiversity. The pandemic compounded issues further drained public funds and caused a shift in different working patterns and attitudes.

Welsh Government Minister, Julie James MS, understands the importance of planning and the profession and the resource constraints in which it operates. In June 2022 she asked the RTPI to investigate this further and particularly the impact this was having on those working in the profession. A bold step for a Minister to ask, particularly when they don’t have access to a pot of gold.

Welsh Government Minister, Julie James MS, addresses the RTPI Cymru Planning Conference

RTPI Cymru launched the Big Conversation in response to the Minister’s request and we had a fantastic response, probably a reflection of how serious an issue this is. The results made for difficult reading but gave us incredibly valuable evidence. Except for a few specific issues (to Welsh language and specific requirements of the Welsh planning system), the RTPI feels that many of the issues are relevant across the UK and Ireland.

Like many, I get a buzz from being stretched and overcoming a challenge, but when the stretch goes on for long or even continuously, the positive vibe dissipates; so I was alarmed to learn that 74% of officers in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) feel overstretched several times a week and 21% of all respondents felt they were overstretched all of the time. This is not healthy for the individual and neither does it provide an environment to deliver good, improving and / or timely outcomes.

The survey produced many challenging statistics, but one which stood out for me and indicating challenges to delivery, was that some reported spending 50% of their time responding to complaints (from moans on e-mail through to challenges in the courts) – that means 50% of their time not spent doing planning.

This of course is not just about LPAs, the lack of resource impacts significantly on the private sector and the public and third sectors delivering projects. The resource pressures aren’t just in LPAs either, the lack of resources across statutory consultees are also making their mark on delivery.

Issues around public engagement were also raised. Of course, engagement is positive, but because of resource constraints across all sectors perhaps not enough is being done, leading to disenfranchised communities and individuals. This, and a general societal shift, leads to an alarming level of negativity. More than half of respondents said social media had a negative effect on their well-being.

The findings of the Big Conversation provide us with a rich source of evidence. Thank you to everyone who took the time to engage with us and share their valuable insights. There is now a duty on all of us to give time to consider and respond to the evidence. As the Minister said this will enable us “to identify actions to protect and strengthen the profession to be able to carry out the vitally important work we ask of it.”

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