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)