This project has now finished, and the final report 'Serving the Public Interest? The reorganisation of UK planning services in an age of reluctant outsourcing' is available [here].
For information about the wider, ESRC-funded and University of Sheffield-led Working in the Public Interest research programme, see [here].
The age of reluctant outsourcing
Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) find themselves operating in a harsh environment; almost a decade of UK-wide austerity has made resourcing a serious challenge. The Government's pro-housing and pro-growth agendas have resulted in an overwhelming focus on these two issues –often to the detriment of other important agendas and a more holistic model of planning. In England, in particular, deregulatory planning reforms have weakened planners' ability to ensure development is coordinated and of a high quality. It has also produced a fractured, complex governance landscape.
This report draws on a series of focus groups held across the UK in 2018, supplemented by an FoI request made to all UK LPAs, to explore public and private sector planners' experiences of how local planning service delivery is changing, and what these changes mean for the planning system's ability to deliver in the public interest.
It finds that LPAs have had to adapt to survive in this environment, often adopting private sector working practices and aggressively pro-development stances to draw in the funding they need to resource their planning teams. But, while LPAs are increasingly acting like the private sector, and the private sector continues to be seen as an indispensable and legitimate source of the expertise and capacity they need, there are signs of a growing backlash against the partial outsourcing that has proliferated in recent years, particularly in England. While full outsourcing has always been rare, and only occurred in England, this appears to be part of growing dissatisfaction with the practice in general across the local public sector. Our participants pointed to higher long-term costs, weaker relationships with applicants, and greater staff "churn" as some of the reasons for this rising scepticism within planning.
This is not to say that LPAs no longer outsource key areas of their work, or that they will not do so in the future; there are strong forces that continue to drive both of these things. Rather, we are now in an age of reluctant outsourcing.
Balance, box-ticking and leadership
The concept of "balance" –weighing up different considerations, interests, and requirements –remains central to the way both public and private sector planners in the UK execute the public interest. And, in many ways, little has changed in the "toolkit" they use to carry out this balancing; professional expertise, accreditation, and continuing development remain central to their decision-making and credibility. However, "proceduralism" – in other words, a "box-ticking" culture – has closed down a lot of the space planners traditionally had for reflection, professional discretion, and proactive planning. In so doing, this is making it harder to undertake the kind of long-term strategic thinking our participants equated with delivering the public interest.
There are certainly exceptions. Our participants highlighted how large, transformative projects can carve out spaces that make this possible. But these cases go against the grain, and opportunities like these were seen as disproportionately concentrated in large urban authorities that experience high development demand.
Strong, experienced, local planning leadership could also make a difference by ensuring strategic oversight, institutional memory, and smart commissioning. In the process, our participants felt that effective leaders with a good knowledge of planning maintain and make the case for efficient, in-house planning services. But again, while we heard many examples of effective leadership and case studies of inspirational change, more often reported were the challenges LPAs face in recruiting experienced leaders. Austerity and restructuring has led to a lack of experienced senior planners in the public sector, and consultancies offer an enticing, well-regarded, well-paying alternative to a public sector that is commonly regarded by planners as having serious image problems.
Meet the Austerity Planner
The longer-term consequences of these shifts – in funding, outsourcing, leadership, and practice – are being keenly felt by modern planning professionals, and particularly recent graduates, whose professional careers have been defined by austerity and post-2010 planning reforms in England. They are adapting to the above social and professional contexts by adjusting their expectations, career trajectories and, crucially, relationships with the public interest. In turn, they are reshaping the world in which they work, and the way in which the public and private sectors interact to deliver services.
Our more senior participants certainly saw some positives about this cohort we characterise through the idea of the "austerity planner". For a start, their skills are in high demand. The austerity planner is also generally relatively well paid and rapidly promoted. But our participants also expressed some deep concerns. They often have little room for proactive planning or independently executing their professional judgement – and this is something that is seen to be eroding both their job satisfaction and their interest in critical reflection. They are highly mobile, having a tendency to move jobs and organisations rapidly in pursuit of more pay and experience. But this may come at the expense of building long-term relationships with customers, places, and colleagues. The austerity planner's propensity to base their career choices on where they want to work, as much as for whom, is having a polarising effect on service delivery in different places.
This is clearly a very rough – and in some ways purposefully provocative – profile of planners whose professional careers have been defined by austerity and post-2010 planning reforms. It undoubtedly reflects wider societal shifts, and certainly only the perspective of our (generally, but not entirely, older and well-established) focus group participants. Nonetheless, it raises important questions about the future of the profession and its relationship with the public interest.
The current picture of local planning service delivery in the UK is not a universally gloomy one, but it does raise serious questions. These questions are not necessarily the same across the nations, and indeed, planners in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland remained more optimistic than their English counterparts. There was, however, a prevailing sense across all our focus groups that local authority planners currently face huge challenges to their ability to plan effectively in the public interest.
The Working in the Public Interestproject is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), project reference ES/P011713/1. The support of the Economic and Social Research Council is gratefully acknowledged.