The influence of planning departments throughout local authorities is important as most corporate decisions have long-term land use implications. This includes looking at spatially appropriate sites for care homes, community hubs, leisure centres and schools. Planning can perform the critical function of aligning transport initiatives, housing strategies and economic development objectives. To ensure that the influence of planning binds together these corporate aims of local authorities, planners must have a central role in the formation of the corporate strategy. Planners must also help to deliver any subsequent work programmes through granting planning permissions, but also by proactively monitoring and assessing land management outcomes.
One Chief Executive argued that:
"Planners should be about ideas, innovation and conversation, and I think that's really at the heart of what a good planner should do I think, a chief planning officer should do particularly." (Chief Executive, Local Authority in England)
Many of the participants in this research highlighted the important interface that planning officers have with elected members and how this realpolitik dynamic works in practice.
"You can't move ahead of the politicians, you can't move ahead of the public. You've got to try and take them with you and that's what planning is for, it should be about lifting people's eyes to the horizon and saying "What is this place going to look like?" (Ex-local government network Chief Executive)
"The professional planners make the decisions, but the local authority is a political organisation and if you don't get on with the politicians you're going to be in trouble." (Retired Chief Planning Officer, England)
In particular, Chief Planning Officers are particularly well suited to provide impartial, professional advice to elected members. This could be through briefings for planning committees or longer-term strategic visions for areas through the creations of local plans, corporate documents and decisions associated with major developments. To do so Chief Planning Officers' need to intimately understand the constraints and political sensitivities which elected members are bound by.
"The members are on a four-or five-year cycle, whereas the renewal is on a 10, 20 or maybe 30-year-cycle. Somebody has to be able to try and keep saying, "Think of the long-term." (Retired Chief Planning Officer, England)
"The key is the relationship with politicians. It is political, it's not party-political but I think it's appreciating the difficult job that councillors have and how they balance that." (Chief Planning Officer, England)
"Being able to steer your way through the political and departmental structure is actually critical to getting on the senior management table." (Retired Chief Planning Officer, England)
To achieve sustainable economic development it is important that planning leaders are able to articulate and convey their visions for growth. These narratives must be underpinned by robust evidence. This project identified innovative ways in which planners were helping to construct these narratives, for example with the help of 3D modelling. Through a clear, long-term vision, planning can bring much needed certainty to the development industry. Simultaneously planners sit almost uniquely in their ability to engage with local communities, and through a bottom-up process, integrate the views of communities and their vision of their future places. To do so it is essential that planners are consulted at the earliest stage in the local authorities' developmental decision-making process and given appropriate resourcing to manage work streams. A back to basics approach was suggested by one participant:
"…understanding that we can contribute enormously to the work that you do if you engage with us much earlier."(Chief Planning Officer, England)
2. New legislation to require Chief Planning Officers as a statutory function within local authorities would protect the functioning of planning departments and the spatial integrity of corporate decision-making in local authorities. It is up to individual nations to arrive at arrangements to suit local circumstances.
3. Local authorities need to engage planners at the outset of any major development or corporate strategy. The inclusion of Chief Planning Officers in the formation of corporate development groups and corporate management groups is essential.
Case Studies: Chief Planning Officers Groups
Groups of Chief Planning Officers have established working groups to collaborate and share best practice on planning matters as appropriate. The following examples provide a sample of existing partnerships promoting the role of the planning profession.
Heads of Planning Policy Scotland (HOPS)
Heads of Planning Policy Scotland (HOPS) is the representative organisation for senior planning officers from Scotland's 32 local authorities, two national park authorities and four strategic development planning authorities.
HOPS is a successor organisation to the previous Scottish Society of Directors of Planning (SSDP) which was formed after local government re-organisation in 1975. SSDP was a useful focal point for collaboration and sharing of planning issues, but it tended to be more reactive than proactive. It did however play a key role in the consultation processes for the last Planning Act in 2006 and it was also instrumental in creating, with the Scottish Government, the successful Planning Performance Framework approach which is still in use today.
The primary purpose of HOPS is to:
- Promote the profile of public sector land use planning;
- Support and promote excellence in planning leadership;
- Ensure the delivery of a culture of continuous improvement in planning authorities;
- Provide advocacy and coordination to ensure that planning authorities are properly resourced to deliver quality outcomes;
- Represent the collective and majority views of Scottish planning authorities in responding to national consultations, recognising that individual authorities may submit their own individual response;
- Carry out research and survey work with the assistance of Scottish planning authorities;
- Work towards a planning system which is simplified and streamlined, adequately resourced and fit for purpose.
HOPS has an Executive Committee which oversees its activities, supported by four sub-committees (Development Management; Development Planning; Performance & Practice; Energy & Resources).
The main organisations that HOPS works with include, but are not limited to:
- Scottish Government;
- Local authorities;
- Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE);
- Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA);
- Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)
HOPS has recently been involved with the new Planning Bill through its various Parliamentary processes. HOPS is essentially run as a voluntary organisation, funded by subscriptions from each local authority. The move to provide secretarial support from the Improvement Service and the more recent appointment of a part-time Planning Manager has helped to further re-position HOPS as a leading planning organisation in Scotland.
Planning Officers Society of Wales (POSW)
The Planning Officers Society Wales (POSW) is the representative body for all heads of planning in Wales' 25 local planning authorities (the 22 Unitary Authorities and 3 National Park Authorities). POSW provides a forum for sharing experience and knowledge and working collaboratively across the 25 planning authorities to seek continual improvement of planning services. POSW works closely with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), RTPI Cymru and Welsh Government.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Planning Officer's Group (HIPOG)
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Planning Officer's Group (HIPOG) has met for several decades and is attended by the Heads of Planning of the 11 Districts/Boroughs, three unitary authorities, two national parks and county councils in the area.
A guest speaker normally attends and there is a standing item on local plan progress and updates – the intention being to share good practice and flag issues. The group was previously more active in areas such as producing joint planning guidance and joint responses to Government consultations, however, this work has tailed off as resources have become squeezed. Currently the group is conducting joint work around infrastructure needs and a potential strategic framework. The group has also recently 'adopted' joint guidance on climate change adaptation.
Kent Planning Officers Group (KPOG)
The Kent Planning Officers Group (KPOG) meets every other month and includes Chief Planning Officers from the county and district local authorities in the area as well as the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation. The Chief Planning Officer from each authority attends meetings subject to availability.
The group addresses strategic planning matters affecting the county. This has recently included a focus on the planning protocol, low emissions strategy and design guidance.
The group works in partnership with a range of organisations, such as Kent County Council, Kent Developers Group and Kent Housing Group.
Surrey Planning Officers Association (SPOA)
The Surrey Planning Officers Association (SPOA) involves the Heads of Planning service from the 11 local planning authorities and one county council in the area and meets every month. It provides an opportunity to share best practice and strengthen working relationships among the LPAs in the region.
Standing items on the agenda include the London Plan, local plans, Heathrow and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). Approaches to urban design and the Housing Delivery Test have recently been discussed.
SPOA also provides an arena to promote joined up working by engaging with other local authority departments exploring how planning can further support the delivery of multiple council objectives.
Case Study: Plymouth Plan
First published in 2015, the Plymouth Plan is an innovative corporate strategy acting as the council's only approved policy framework - an expenditure and investment programme integrated into an overarching strategic plan for the locality. It began with the ambitions to consolidate over 100 plans and internal strategies across the authority into one interactive web-based corporate plan, owned by the City Council and its partners. The plan also won an RTPI Award for Planning Excellence for Plan Making in 2015.
The plan is an exemplar in harnessing the strategic and corporate influence of planning. The planning department at Plymouth Council took the lead for the entire process. To do so planners needed to build cross party consensus on achieving growth, understanding councillor's ambitions and developing close working relationships with them. Planners also had to earn the respect of other local authorities and public agencies in order to operate together. A shared vision was developed through an extensive community engagement process and working closely with the private sector. This vision delivers corporate objectives and provides clarity for private investment. The Plymouth Plan leads all corporate planning activity in Plymouth, delivering planning outcomes beyond the local plan and Development Management responsibilities. Most decisions taken by the local authority are now taken within a planning context.
Following adoption of the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan in March 2019 policies relating to Plymouth are now embedded in the rest of the Plymouth Plan so that all policies (spatial and otherwise) that relate to the city can be viewed in one place.
Case Study: Ceredigion County Council Development Group
In Ceredigion, the Development Group, exemplifies an innovative way of working within local authorities to improve the corporate influence of planning. This internal group was set up to promote economic development and regeneration opportunities whilst better integrating public service delivery. The group focuses on identifying investment priorities that deliver the council's corporate strategy and identify major corporate reviews and projects that are being prepared by service areas. This includes evaluating and monitoring major internally and externally led projects and proposals, addressing infrastructure requirements and reviewing council assets. The group has a multi-disciplinary set of professionals around the table, including elected members.
Significantly the group has the Chief Planning Officer as the lead officer, thereby ensuring planning has an influence at the very earliest stage in the conception of capital projects. With this early input planning is positioned as a discipline that facilitates sustainable development, helping elected members deliver their intended aspirations for the communities they serve.
 This was also a key finding of RTPI's Value of Planning research: (2014), The Value of Planning, RTPI
 Plymouth City Council (2019). The Plymouth Plan. Available from: https://bit.ly/2IztB1n
 The RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence 2015. Available from: https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/2595641/rtpi_awards_online_brochure_final.pdf
 Plymouth City, South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils (2019). Available from: https://bit.ly/2KmmsUj