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19/07/2019

Planning must have a new training compact to support local communities

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In an age of austerity and decentralisation, the planning profession must take the lead in giving people control over the development of their communities, argues Dai Larner

There is widespread and deep public concern about the effect on localities of global trends ranging from declining town centres, climate change and industrial transformation in the steel and auto industries. These trends require national or international action but the local effects are acute and communities want the ability to shape and direct the response to these issues where they live.

The Local Government Association (LGA) residents’ satisfaction survey in 2018 found that 73 per cent of respondents trusted local councillors to take decisions affecting their area, compared to 7 per cent favouring government ministers.

"But the ability to act effectively in localities is being undermined by two pernicious trends – austerity and state centralisation"

Control over land-use planning is one of the main powers that local people have to respond to change, but the ability to act effectively in localities is being undermined by two pernicious trends:

  • austerity
  • state centralisation

Austerity has led to a reduction in the resources available to local communities. A recent report by the National Audit Office (Planning for New Homes, 2019) showed that total spending on planning has reduced by 14.6 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18. This is likely to continue as councils prioritise social care spending.

My own councils (High Peak Borough Council and Staffordshire Moorlands District Council) have been able to maintain spending on planning by creating a shared service model which protects front-line services. Our councillors have supported this arrangement because, in the case of planning, they recognise that investing in the service helps communities to get the development they need and helps protect places and buildings that are important.

The results of this investment have included the transformation of the town centres in Leek and Glossop, the heritage-led regeneration of Buxton, a four-fold increase in affordable homes in High Peak, and support for the expansion of businesses such as JCB, Alton Towers and Nestle. We have also been able to support our parishes to develop neighbourhood plans and worked with our wildlife trusts to protect the countryside.

"Six inspectors were recruited from my own service alone. This leads to a loss of valuable skills and experience for local communities"

Our shared service arrangement is an idea that works but it is being undermined by the second threat – state centralisation.

The Office for National Statistics have recently published information which contrasts a record high of central government employment with a record low of local government employment (see chart below).

We have seen this shift reflected in the steady increase in the size of the Planning Inspectorate. Six inspectors were recruited from my own service alone. This leads to a loss of valuable skills and experience for local communities and disruption and inconvenience to our customers.

Most of the staff that we lost were ‘home-grown’. We trained and invested in their careers and as a result increased the national planning talent pool. But this talent has now been lost from the local communities where it is most needed and valued.

Austerity has made it difficult to maintain our capacity to respond to local issues. This problem is compounded by a national Planning Inspectorate which is growing at the expense of local government and not fully contributing to addressing the shortage of planners in the country.

We need a new training compact where local government and the Planning Inspectorate both contribute to developing the people we need to deliver a planning system that helps our communities take control and make decisions in their towns, villages and countryside.

Dai Larner is executive director - place at High Peak Borough Council/Staffordshire Moorlands District Council

Photo | iStock

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