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Where have all the planners gone?

An empty chair

The evidence suggests that planning is facing a challenge with attracting and retaining planners. This needs to be addressed now, says Peter Geraghty

Given recent official reports we, in the profession, could rightly ask: “Oh! Where have all the planners gone?”

The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published its report, Planning for new homes, highlighting the shortage of planners. It found that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) “does not understand the extent of skills shortages in planning”. It points out the number of local authority planning staff fell by 15 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

The NAO highlights also that between 2010 and 2018, the Planning Inspectorate experienced a 13 per cent fall in staff numbers. The Inspectorate does not have a detailed workforce plan and MHCLG does not collate comprehensive data on the extent of this shortage. There are no reliable data on how many planners work in local authorities in England. Furthermore, between 2010-11 and 2017-18, in real-terms there was a 37.9 per cent fall in net current expenditure on planning functions (development control, conservation and listed buildings planning policy and other planning policy) by local authorities.

"There are no reliable data on how many planners work in local authorities in England"

This report was followed by the publication of Bridget Rosewell’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries in which she advised that the Planning Inspectorate faces a considerable challenge to resource all areas requiring experienced inspectors adequately, including inquiry appeal work. The shortage of suitably experienced senior inspectors was particularly acute.

A 2016 study by the East of England Local Government Association found that local authorities significantly lack the capacity and skills to deliver the region’s growth agenda.

This situation has been a long time in the making. For far too long the planning profession has been vilified for the sins of the system in which they have to work and endure general negativity about planning. The Raynsford Review found a real anger among senior planners who believed that they were now being asked to administer a system whose objectives led, far too often, to poor outcomes for people and failed to deliver long-term place-making. This, they felt, was contrary to the values which brought them into the profession.

Meanwhile, graduate planners informed the Review of a real disappointment that the world-changing activity they were inspired to be part of turned out to require them to be little more than ‘traffic wardens’ for land. The Planner's Careers Survey found that 50 per cent of public sector planners and almost a third in the private sector thought they were underpaid for their position or level of responsibility.

"If we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining sufficient planners we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners"

If we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining sufficient planners, we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners. It is also important to ensure that those who join the profession do not leave it mid-career. If we don’t robustly address the question of the value being placed on the profession and planning generally in ten years from now we will still be asking the same question: ‘Where have all the planners gone?’. 

Peter Geraghty FRTPI is director of planning and transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and a past president of the RTPI. He writes in a personal capacity.


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