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Can we address poor perception of planning in the public sector?

Public Practice / Jim Stephenson

A new social enterprise aims to attract a new generation of gifted planners to work for the public good, explains Pooja Agrawal

Working as a planner in the public sector is underpaid, lacks development opportunities and is stressful.” This is what a senior private sector planner told me recently, a view echoed in similar conversations. So it’s no great surprise that the GLA’s latest planning capacity survey finds that the biggest barrier local authorities face is the ability to attract the right candidates. 

The long-standing and widening skill gap between the public and private sector must be addressed,  as it is affecting the speed and quality of the planning process and the delivery of vital homes. But are the perceptions of the senior planner justified?

Benchmarking salaries of senior planners with three years’ experience in the private and public sectors, I found that working in the public sector at this level actually pays better, not to mention benefits and flexibility. Councils have several approaches to staff training and increasingly focus on new skills such as economic development. London has support programmes, including Urban Design London and Future of London. 

The perception hardest to bat away, however, is that of stress. In the past five years, net local authority spending on planning and development has fallen by 60 per cent, yet the pressure to deliver homes is higher than ever. 

“Public Practice aims to change the perception of planning by attracting a new generation of planners, architects and urban designers who want to work for the public good”

Local authority resource is understandably concentrated on areas of planning subject to quantitative targets, like development management, as opposed to qualitative aspects such as policy, urban design, architecture and conservation. The nature of the job is becoming reactive as opposed to proactive. Increased planning fees will no doubt address some of this pressure. But the skills that authorities tell us they need most are in influencing the quality and vision of a place. 

What can be done to improve the perception of public sector planning and its resources? Under the Mayor of London’s ‘Good Growth by Design’ scheme, the GLA has developed Public Practice, a social enterprise that brokers one-year placements for outstanding planning and place-shaping practitioners in local authorities.

Practitioners will spend 90 per cent of their time working across planning departments and 10 per cent on collective research and personal development. Public Practice aims to change the perception of planning by attracting a new generation of planners, architects and urban designers who want to work for the public good. The pilot is to be launched this autumn, for the cohort to begin placements in April 2018. Public Practice is one way to change perceptions, harness talent, improve the diversity of the planning sector and build the public sector’s capacity to deliver better places.

Pooja Agrawal is senior project officer for the Greater London Authority

Public Practice is inviting applications for the first cohort of associates and expressions of interest from local authorities interested in hosting placements by 10 December. The first cohort will be based across London and the south east of England. Further details can be found on the Public Practice website.

Photo | Jim Stephenson


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