The Wales Audit Office’s report on the Effectiveness of Local Planning Authorities in Wales last month is one in a series of official reports identifying significant underinvestment in local authority planning departments and shortages of planners.
It found a significant reduction in capacity and struggle to deliver statutory responsibilities – budget having fallen by 50% in real terms since 2008-9 and net expenditure has fallen from £45 million in 2008-09 to £22.8 million in 2017-18. Planning officer capacity in Wales is stretched and skills are decreasing in key areas of work. The number of trainees entering planning has also fallen which raises concerns over the long-term sustainability of services.
The same picture was echoed in the National Audit Office report from February 2019 which found that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ‘does not understand the extent of skills shortages in planning’ and that the Planning Inspectorate does not have a detailed workforce plan. It pointed out local authority planning staff level fell by 15% between 2006 and 2016, while between 2010 and 2018 the Planning Inspectorate experienced a 13% fall in staff numbers. The report notes that, between 2010-11 and 2017-18, there was a 37.9% real-terms fall in net current expenditure on planning functions in local authorities.
Continual tweaks and changes to the planning system has the risk of undermining an already fragile, public confidence in planning.
This report was followed shortly after by Bridget Rosewell’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries which found that the Planning Inspectorate faces considerable challenge to resource all areas requiring experienced Inspectors adequately. The shortage of suitably experienced senior inspectors was particularly acute.
The Raynsford Review published in November 2018 found that the difficulty of recruiting planners has become a real issue, compounded by opportunities for early retirement from local authorities. Reductions in local planning authority training budgets, says Raynsford, means that planners often cannot afford to travel to training events or conferences, limiting their ability to learn from good practice which could increase performance and save money.
If we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining enough planners with the right skills, we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners.
MHCLG has made some efforts to deal with the shortages of planners by helping to fund a bursary scheme and supporting a bid by the RTPI for a degree-level planning apprenticeship, which has recently been launched.
However, it is not just a question of the numbers of planners; there are wider issues about the attractiveness of the profession and the appropriate skills that modern planners need and the role of public interest in planning.
This situation has been a long time in the making. For far too long the planning profession has been vilified for the perceived sins of the system in which they have to work and endure general negativity about planning.
The Raynsford Review found a real anger among senior planners who believed that they were now being asked to administer a system whose objectives led, far too often, to poor outcomes for people and failed to deliver long-term place-making. Graduate planners also expressed a real disappointment that the world-changing activity they were inspired to be part of turned out to be little more than ‘traffic wardens’ for land.
If we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining enough planners with the right skills, we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners. This why the RTPI is campaigning for local authority chief executives to put planning back at the top table of corporate decision-making.
It is also important to ensure that those who join the profession do not leave it mid-career. There needs to be clarity on what is required of planning practice for the twenty-first century so that students can be trained with the right skills and provided with the right experience knowing what is expected of them.
Continual tweaks and changes to the planning system has the risk of undermining an already fragile, public confidence in planning. There should be a clear position of what role public interest should play in future planning practice. These issues need to be urgently and robustly addressed and a vision for the future of planning practice clearly set out so that we can all have a cadre of planners with the right skills and of sufficient numbers, properly resourced, working towards delivering a shared goal for planning.
The National Planning Policy Framework as it stands is not fulfilling these requirements, but it should. Perhaps the recently announced Green Paper on Accelerated Planning will grasp this opportunity - if not, 10 years from now we will still be reading official reports opining the shortage of planners.
The views expressed are my own and do not represent those of my employers.
Peter Geraghty FRTPI
Head of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Peter Geraghty FRTPI is Director of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. He was Chair of the RTPI Board of Trustees in 2012, President of the RTPI 2013 to 2014, and former Chair of the RTPI's International Committee. He is currently the RTPI representative to the Commonwealth Association of Planners. The view expressed are his own.