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Robbie Calvert: The importance of Chief Planning Officers in Local Authorities

Robbie Calvert is a Planning Officer (Planning Policy) at Scottish Borders Councils and Chartered Trustee at the RTPI. As a Policy, Practice and Research Officer at the RTPI, Robbie played a key role in calling on the Scottish Government to require every planning authority to appoint a Chief Planning Officer.

It’s no secret that planners can often find themselves trying to resolve deep set tensions relating to land use. I’m sure we’ve all observed sometimes diametrically opposing views from across the private and public sector.

However, occasionally a topic bursts through this somewhat fraught environment that unequivocally garners the support of the entire profession. I would say that one such recent example of this is the ambition to enhance the corporate and strategic influence of planning in local authorities by promoting the role of the Chief Planning Officer.

Corporate management teams provide leadership, vision, and priority setting for places by shaping the strategic operational direction and investment decisions of local authorities. Unfortunately, many have observed that, after rounds of governance restructuring and funding cuts, the corporate presence of planning diminishing.

Fundamentally, most corporate decisions made in local authorities have long-term land use implications. Chief Planning Officers are a key mechanism to identifying them at the earliest stage and putting placemaking at the heart of organisations. Reversing this trend is a cause that we should unite behind as a profession, with the support of the Institute and other key stakeholders.

I believe we have some cause for celebration here, in Scotland at least, where on the 1st of April 2024, the requirement for every planning authority to appoint a Chief Planning Officer became a statutory duty. This marks the culmination of many years of successful campaigning and advocacy work from RTPI Scotland but also the wider Institute, which has published a number of research papers and blogs on the matter.

Case closed on the need to promote the corporate and strategic influence of planning in local authorities? Unfortunately, I think not.

To support planning authorities implementing this duty, corresponding guidance has also been issued by the Scottish Government. This guidance sets out a number of key duties and responsibilities including delivering national planning priorities, championing place, promoting planning across the organisation and embedding continuous improvement in the service. The guidance also sets out qualifications including that it is “highly desirable for the chief planning officer to hold chartered membership of the RTPI”. I wholeheartedly agree with the guidance that chartered membership of the RTPI amongst leadership will better foster professionalism in the planning service.

Whilst some will be disappointed that the RTPI chartership is not mandatory, I imagine with such wording many organisations will be minded to make it so when incorporating this guidance into their job descriptions when recruiting.

Case closed on the need to promote the corporate and strategic influence of planning in local authorities? Unfortunately, I think not.

Alas it is not about simply having a Chief Planning Officer in place (although this would help ameliorate the most egregious finding from the first RTPI research that 9% of local authorities had no clear role assigned to the head of planning service), it’s about ensuring that they are included in the key discussions at the corporate table so they can support the senior management team and elected members to understand the spatial and place-based implications of decisions and investments.

So whilst the work is not done, this is still a big win for the Institute, a positive news story, and hopefully one that can catalyse similar action across the nations and beyond.


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