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Resources: can we really do more with less…?

Neil Harris is a Chartered Town Planner and an academic in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. The research report for RTPI Cymru and an update report can be found here.

‘I’m afraid there is no money’

You may have felt that resources are a bit stretched at the moment… and the planning system is no different. We all know that the resources to deliver the planning system have declined sharply over time – and, of course, we rightly hear repeated calls from professional bodies and others for better resourcing of the planning system. If you want a planning system that works, then you have got to pay for it, yes? And we continue to wait for more resources to flow… and then wait some more.

So, without abandoning calls for a better-resourced planning system, what can we also do to try and deliver a more efficient and effective planning system? Can we do better with the resources that we do have – even if that may be difficult and challenging? We may not have to accept that ‘there is no money’, but equally we cannot just wait for more funds to arrive.

Recent research in Wales has explored what we can do to deliver a more efficient and effective planning system within existing resources – and stakeholders were asked to contribute their ideas.

There are three key lessons we can take away from that work which addresses a wide range of themes from access to specialist expertise, working collaboratively on key resources, and making sure we are bring in additional resources where we can.

Let’s get together: access to specialist expertise.

Planning decisions are complex – and getting the right balance among competing goals is getting even more difficult. Good planning decisions are frequently underpinned by specialist knowledge – and fewer local planning authorities have ready access to necessary expertise. This is particularly so for ‘technical’ issues of flood risk, heritage and conservation,  landscape and ecology.

The solution may exist in pooling and sharing specialist expertise across collections of local planning authorities – which may in turn offer better career structures for specialist planning teams. There are examples in Wales where shared teams have ensured access to quality input on specialist planning issues such as minerals and waste. We nevertheless need significant leadership and brokerage, alongside good business planning, to extend shared services to other specialist areas.

Building a common platform for planning services

The research in Wales also identified another area for potential collaboration that could lead to a more efficient and effective planning system – if local planning authorities could better harness the power of procurement.

We heard of each local planning authority commissioning or purchasing operational platforms for managing planning information and data, and supporting both plan-making and decision-making. We also heard of slightly different platforms being used by each local planning authority with the result that user interfaces can be confusing and variable in quality. These systems sometimes operate ‘at risk’ and are inefficient. Councils pay significant sums to get systems that maybe do not quite meet their own or their users’ needs.

Stakeholders in the Wales research identified the very significant potential of commissioning a common, digital operating platform for planning services across local planning authorities. The strategic commissioning of software to support planning services needs strong leadership and financial commitment but could deliver very significant benefits to more efficient and effective delivery of planning services.

More planners… and more experienced planners

A common complaint in Wales is that it is difficult to employ enough good quality people to planning vacancies. This is a consequence of a number of issues, including constrained budgets, fighting to protect posts, and simply having enough planners out there to recruit from. Participants in the research identified the need for more bursaries, apprenticeships and graduate schemes to help create the next generation of planners.

It is not just about having enough planners, either. We heard from some participants a need for planners to better appreciate each other’s roles and positions so that we can deliver a more effective and efficient planning system. Planners – we were told – can sometimes become embedded in their specific role or specialism and lose sight of the wider purposes and role of the planning system.

Ideas to address this included secondments and exchanges across public and private sectors, between different planning roles in policy and development management, and across different scales. In the words of one participant, we need to get back to the ‘all-round, grounded and pragmatic planner’.

So, that’s everything fixed then..?

Well, the challenge is that none of this is easy to do. There are of course some potentially easier actions and quick wins that may have some positive impact in delivering more effective and efficient planning services. However, the more substantial steps toward change require significant collaboration, political and professional leadership, important skills in brokerage and business planning, and, yes… capacity, time and resources. 

RTPI Cymru, supported by the RTPI Cymru Policy and Research Forum continues to call for more resources for planning while championing the recommendations of the Building Capacity through Collaboration and Change report.

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