Where's the plan for planners?

Where’s the plan for planners?

I’m often asked what’s needed to deliver successful developments in partnership with local authorities.

Countryside has a long history of unlocking the value of sites through regeneration so my view in a nutshell is this - Projects work when the following is in place:

Leadership
Good leadership is vital, both political and executive. Of course, this can be complicated depending on political fortunes so initial and on-going cross-party support is invaluable.

Clarity
It follows that there must be a clear objective that everyone is working towards from the start. Issues raised down the line cause confusion and delay.

Delivery
In order to achieve delivery, councils must be ready to gear up once consent is granted. Resources should be available to ensure developers get on site and discharge planning conditions asap.

Balance
Providing a balanced mix of house sizes, tenures and types is critical to ensuring the delivery of quality communities. Too often councils can be very specific and not allow developers to bring forward schemes in line with market pressures.

Stewardship
The most successful schemes also consider the long-term management of the development, for instance open spaces, community centres, etc., from the outset.

From that list you may have noticed a glaring omission – planners. Sadly, planners are not just missing from this list they’re also missing from many town halls.
 

Missing planners

Over the last decade of austerity, planning departments up and down the land have seen their budgets cut dramatically. In London, despite the housing crisis, planning and development services budgets have fallen by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2017. As you’d expect there has been a significant drop in the number of officers in these departments.

As early as 2015, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) identified local authority planning departments as either, ‘striving’, ‘surviving’, or ‘struggling’. Those that were surviving were doing so on the goodwill and professional integrity of officers. Three years later nothing has changed so the question must be – How many planning departments are now simply struggling?

I can understand that everyone in the public sector has been called on to make savings, but I worry that planners have been seen as a soft target. After all, how many people would protest about a planning department being cut in half compared with the closure of a day centre for the elderly?

In my view, this disregard for planners is short sighted. The best planning teams have vision and can produce real benefits for their communities, working with developers to maximise the value of housing developments in terms of design, place making and outcomes.

If planners are overloaded, just keeping up with demand, they have less time to think about the long term or to interact with developers on pre-application advice and Section 106 agreements. In turn developers will look to work with authorities where hassle is at a minimum, meaning some communities will miss out on vital infrastructure.

It’s imperative we find a way to invest more in our planning departments so that they can recruit, retain, and importantly, train staff. I’d argue, as the RTPI does, that every local authority should have a head of planning and that they should have a seat at the top table. In short, we need a plan for planners.

Andrew Taylor

Head of Planning, Countryside