Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The plight of the planners

My recent piece on (allegedly) ‘Worst-performing Local Planning Authorities’ has prompted this comment from a town planner, who must necessarily remain anonymous. You will understand from what I have already written that I entirely sympathise with this officer’s views, and with their analysis of the problems that are accumulating due to cuts. I have absolutely no doubt that things really are as bad as he or she says.

My anonymous correspondent writes:

“As a local government planner, I won’t pretend there aren’t lots of things we could do better and we should always drive towards greater efficiency, but quite simply if experienced, knowledgeable planners are taken out of a planning department – deliberately through retirement/reorganisation, negligently through creating such a stressful work environment they choose to leave, or (equally as bad) as a result of loading unmanageable extra levels of work on them and rendering them effectively unable to devote time to planning (see all heads of planning who are now also heads of regeneration, building control, environmental services, land rec, highways, parks etc) the resulting poorer service is inevitable.

Planners able to deal successfully with Members, consultants and statutory consultees and who are able to see the wood for the trees are either not being replaced or replaced with junior, less experienced staff. Good luck to the next generation coming through who are getting their start in the workplace, but a graduate is never going to be able to fill the hole left by an experienced officer and nor should they be asked to. An experienced officer will not only be doing their own job, but helping everyone else around them - so you don’t just lose one member of staff, you also affect the performance of those that remain.

The warnings of future budget settlements are dire. We’re no longer ‘achieving efficiencies’; rather we’ll see good old cost cutting. No pretence about streamlining or realigning focus, Councils will just have to cut costs regardless of the effect on service. No Senior Planning Officer wants to deliver a poorer service, but if there aren’t the resources to fund anything other than a poorer service, what can they do? There’s only so much clever thinking that can hold off the inevitable.

Most worryingly of all, the professional officers rising to the top in this cost cutting era aren’t going to be your Chief Planning Officer types with 30 years of experience at all levels of planning, who know what it takes to deliver major development (by which I mean not just giving planning permission or getting the funding, but actually seeing something built on the ground). They’ll be cost-cutting management types, who neither understand or care what planning is or does and whose sole focus will be cut, cut, cut.

I’ve heard of one Council who are looking to scrap their entire planning policy section. If true, it’ll be spun well enough, but good luck to everyone involved in doing anything that needs more than a simple DC appraisal there in the future.

I try to tell myself we’ve been here before and sense will ultimately prevail, but another few years of the Coalition’s what-announcement-can-we-make-today approach and local government’s perhaps inevitable response of promoting up the cost-cutting non-planners to deliver cuts rather than the annoying planners who might suggest that doing away with things like planning policy is a bad idea, is going to have big consequences for us as a profession and ultimately for the communities we’re trying to make better.

Some may read this and think of all the poor local government planners they’ve ever had the frustration of dealing with, sitting round drinking tea all day and chatting about ‘I’m a Celebrity’ but trust me, when the department is led by a cost-cutting android, the expensive senior planners are all retired off, those that remain are either so good at their job they’re now also in charge of dog-catching, car parks and tree cutting or are so new and inexperienced that they’re left to get on with it, with no support and no ability to make decisions – everyone will look back on the good old days, where it might not have been as efficient as it should have been, but at least their local planning department had a thread of planning common sense running through its decisions and for good or bad there was some sense of ‘planning’ at the heart of it all.”

Before anyone scoffs at this, bear in mind that it is the 'consumers' of planning services - all sorts of people who need planning permission for a wide variety of developments, and in fact the public generally, who are ultimately going to suffer from all this. It certainly isn't going to deliver the growth the government so desperately wants to promote (or says it does).

© MARTIN H GOODALL (with acknowledgements to my anonymous contributor)


  1. This planner sounds like the sort of person we need, if he/she can make a decision that is not influenced by others with an agenda.

  2. The latest Audit Commission report, which acknowledges that there have been disproportionate cuts to planning services, suggests that local authority spending plans for next year do not call for such drastic cuts in this area of work in future. However, this is necessarily a generalisation, and some councils may still look on planning as a soft target for further cuts. Even if there are no further cuts, those that have already been imposed have gone too far (as the Audit Commission has clearly stated), and extra resources will need to be found before we can get development management back on track in many authorities.

  3. I commented on the original post, comparing my two immediate LA's where one is delivering an excellent level of service and the other is so poor I would describe it as non functional. Which if budget cuts are to blame, as claimed by the anonymous officer /former officer, raises the question of whether cuts are uniform across all authorities. The LA that is performing well, I would say is delivering a higher level of service than anything I have experienced in 30+ years of practice, they make mistakes, they can get some decisions wrong, but the level of service is very nearly at a level you would expect from a commercial organisation.

  4. I thought of G Lawes’ earlier comment when posting this item. He has a valid point. The question is – Does the LPA that is performing so well perhaps have more resources than the poorer performing authority? Cuts have certainly not been evenly distributed among authorities, and some authorities have cut their planning services disproportionately. Good management is clearly an important factor. It sounds as though the exemplary LPA has first-rate management, which supports, encourages and motivates staff. I have heard it said that good management is managing well with less resources than you think you really need – but there are limits to this, and I believe those limits have already been passed, not only in many LPAs but also in many government departments and other public sector organisations.

  5. When your refer to the performance of la's are you talking about speed of decisions or quality of service as a whole?

  6. When I refer to the performance of LPAs I am referring to all aspects of their performance, although reasonable speed in decision-making must clearly be one of the metrics. What users of the planning system want above all is user-friendly LPAs, who can respond flexibly and helpfully to enquiries and suggestions and who register planning applications without fussing over the details. By far the most infuriating behaviour on the part of certain LPAs is the summary rejection of applications because of some alleged failure to provide information which in practice is not required, just because it is on their list of local validation requirements. Planning professionals and developers get hotter under the collar about this issue than any other.

  7. Oh this blog has the potential to consume endless hours of my time.

    As both a consumer submitting/fighting with a particularly obstructive LPA who in my mind acted without scruples in giving encouraging pre-planning advice only to subsequently collect(steal)a large planning fee and turn down the very application they had help to design.
    As a supplier of structures to potential consumers willing to invest in getting the economy going only to have their hopes, dreams and planning fees disappear on a regular basis,I can't help but think that the system is fundamentally wrong.

    I generally support the Coalition's concept of 'a presumption in favour' but not sure how this will work in practice.

    Dare I suggest a league table of LPAs measured by value of applications rec'd, value of work to the local and national economy generated (need some measures here not just contract value) and potential value delayed or just refused.
    Such a league table could be used to compare LPA by type e.g. rural, city and weighting factors such as AONB, Country Parks etc.

    ANON to protect the innocent.