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RTPI study highlights the rise of the "austerity planner"

30 January 2019

Austerity in England has eroded planning’s ability to serve the public interest, according to planners who took part in a study by the RTPI and Newcastle University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 

Under-resourcing, coupled with reforms that have undermined planning’s strategic role, have relegated it to a largely reactive, regulatory function in many local authorities, creating a “box-ticking culture that has closed off the space many planners traditionally used for reflection, professional discretion and proactive planning”, according to the report.

Austerity...has created a box-ticking culture that has closed off the space many planners traditionally used for reflection, professional discretion and proactive planning.

This makes it harder to undertake the long-term strategic thinking and professional discretion that both public and private sector planners feel is needed to deliver the public interest, the study says.

Respondents said many LPAs have adapted to resource pressures by being more efficient and business-like, but raised concern that planning is increasingly seen as a commercial, revenue-generating tool which could skew decision-making on applications.

Planners are also increasingly sceptical about the value-for-money of outsourcing and its effects on service delivery.

“Serving the public interest? The reorganisation of planning services in an era of reluctant outsourcing” is an in-depth qualitative study based on focus groups in Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Leicester, Greater London and the South East with around 50 planning professionals.

Victoria Hills, RTPI Chief Executive, said:

“Local planning authorities have demonstrated exceptional resilience in the face of austerity by becoming more streamlined and efficient. Whilst planners in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland remain overall confident, planning in England does face some serious challenges.

“Places where authorities put planning at the heart of their corporate strategy are successful places to live. Yet, our research uncovers a prevailing sense that local authority planners face huge challenges to their ability to plan effectively in the public interest. This is an issue we take seriously. That’s why we are campaigning local authorities to put planning back at the top table of corporate decision-making and will continue to make the case for better resourcing.”

The "austerity planner"

The study highlights the “austerity planner”, an emerging type of public sector planner whose career has been defined by austerity and post-2010 planning reforms in England. 

“Austerity planners” are in high demand and often highly skilled, but they often have “little room for proactive planning or independently executing their professional judgement”, and tend to move change jobs rapidly, the study finds.

Sound, experienced leadership has also suffered under austerity, with many LPAs facing difficulty in recruiting good senior staff and consultancies offering a well-paid alternative to the public sector.