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Serving the Public Interest?

The Reorganisation of UK Planning Services In An 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.

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