So, how is everybody in the world of Planning?

We returned to PAS “happy place” Wolverhampton recently to hold another Heads of Planning conference. It was slightly giddy. You can see lots of the presentations on our main site, and see reflections from other PAS people elsewhere on the blog. This post is an attempt to summarise the mood of the conference. After the first scheduled day we slightly bravely spent an hour without any presentations or agenda, and encouraged people to speak their brains. We then played it back to them on the second day, and asked them whether or not we’d got it about right. What follows is this synthesis, fleshed out a bit to make it stand up on its own.

Proof – we got them to vote on whether it was a reasonable summary of their views (it was)

The 30 second summary is

  1. Capacity – it presented as many things (fees, experience, churn) but finding more planner capacity is urgent and critical
  2. Generally people thought the LURB and stated direction of travel for the planning system was a good thing
  3. People were getting on with things, and the “levelling up” agenda plays very naturally into skills and aptitudes that feel very comfortable for planners
  4. Our ask of government is to help us to help ourselves – to get on with reform, to provide incentives for us to transform and to provide a positive framing for the work of planning and planners

Planning and capacity

I recently completed my 15th year in PAS, and for almost all of them people have been complaining about capacity. It would be easy for an outsider to roll their eyes. However it seems that recently something has changed- we already have a handful of councils designated for poor performance and many other councils are under water but hiding it with extensions of time and PPAs. Some councils are failing to recruit altogether, and others are doing only application work and letting everything else slide.

It is some comfort that this was picked up by both our DLUHC speakers, and our fantastic pre-dinner speaker from PINS helped reinforce the message that being a planner in a council could be a uniquely privileged and wonderful opportunity for nosy people. It is hopefully the case that the pandemic has seen the end of the long hours and huge case load culture often seen in DM teams, and it is no bad thing that managers need to think more carefully and deliberately about making an enjoyable work culture (more on this to come I hope).

However while it is no doubt a long-term problem there is no reason for a response to be a slow one. We don’t need more studies, thinking or consultation to begin. Finding new experienced planners to replace gaps like-with-like feels the slowest possible way, so we need to think more creatively.

Some teams are already using the apprenticeship levy to begin people at the start of their training, and others are using groups like public practice with great success to attract new types of people and making more diverse teams.

There were concerns that the proposed fee increase (25% & 35%) was not seen as especially urgent, and there might even be a risk that it would either be seen as a “cost of living” type burden and shifted later, or a “something for something” deal that would come with resource strings attached. There was also the obvious point that almost every service had a capacity deficit already. Both the changes required by the planning reforms and the additional work apparent in the Environment Act would require additional capacity on top of the existing deficit. We were less giddy at this point.

The LURB is a good thing

Over the day we spoke about the LURB as a thing in itself as well as unpacking some parts of it in more detail (most obviously digital – more on that shortly). Generally the vibe was positive. While our audience of chief planners put some of them (us) in a certain demographic there was little hesitation that a future that was more digital, more spatial and involved working smarter not harder was definitely a good thing.

Similarly, the change that was most obviously described in the transition from SA and SEA to the proposed EOR – ie the shift from process, risk and compliance to one based on outcomes was again widely seen as another good thing.

However there was a sense that the principle of “simplicity is better than complexity” is very easy to say but quite difficult to deliver. For example, the use of prior approval as some kind of easy short-cut to a consent has ended up with hugely stressful and difficult cases for councils and applicants (and neighbours!) alike.

People had heard the hope that the new planning system would require some co-design, and were keen to help at the outset to ensure that realism and pragmatism were used to design out unnecessary complexity or room for manoeuvre.

There was also talk on both days (some of it from me) about how planners needed to watch not only DLUHC but increasingly also Defra and their ALBs. It is clear from both the environmental side but also NSIP that there is a new seriousness in Government in aligning departmental activity behind national policy statements. It has since been overtaken by events, but there was a view that government could build on their progress on strategic outcomes for offshore wind (rather than treating them as a series of individual projects) and do something similar for nutrient neutrality.

Levelling up and planning

Levelling-up again got a pretty supportive response. The agenda is in part some of the things that planners have been working on for years – the changing nature of town centres, delivering improvements for the environment and peoples’ enjoyment of it and the other ‘place’ bits of the levelling up missions.

The jobs to be done in levelling up and reform also require some traditional skills that planners have always brought to the fore – negotiating, influencing designing systems and thinking holistically.

Yes the restriction on capacity is grave, and life would be far easier without the firefighting that often happens when skills and experience are short. However we heard from both speakers and delegates of some of the fantastic work they were already doing, and there was no shortage of ambition to deliver real improvements for places and communities.

We’ve had a chance to review the feedback on the event, and one of the lovely things that people report was that sharing updates and news on the exciting work already underway all over the country energised and refreshed everyone in the room. It was great – the team’s cockles are very warm at present. I’m very proud of them and our wider PAS friends & family.

Help us to help ourselves

In the end the ask from the HoPs was fairly straightforward. Everyone felt “up for it” but needed three things to help us deliver the new planning system and ways of working, and I don’t think any of them are a surprise:

  • Get the planning reform iceberg moving – it is clear to all that the LURB is only the initial bare bones of the reform. The whole package (primary, secondary, guidance, IL, design codes, EOR etc) will not be fully in place for some years, and once transition has been factored in we might be well into the next parliament. All the while “better and faster” is promised (alongside “no mutant algorithm”) most councils will find it terribly difficult to get consensus on a new local plan or making much progress at all. Show us what you’re going to do and when, so we can understand how to prepare.
  • Give us incentives to make progress and increase capacity. Nobody (not even Charlie Munger) considers incentives enough. Defra might imagine it enough that the Environment Act places a new duty on public authorities to consider BNG; DLUHC might think that a statutory timetable to make a local plan in 30 months is enough. Neither is right. Incentives are required – perhaps we can remember the lessons from the Housing & Planning Delivery Grant and find a new way to support the digitisation of planning teams?
  • Create a positive framework for talking about planning and the management of development. A growing proportion of councils have local “super objectors” convinced that LPAs are evil, complicit and incompetent partly because of a lack of honest and consistent national direction on housing and infrastructure. There is also a growing network of objectors convinced (perhaps correctly) that there isn’t enough of a holistic and thoughtful consideration of environmental capacity. We need a national conversation about what high quality development means – not in an abstract sense but in a “this is what it means for real places” kind of way.

One thought on “So, how is everybody in the world of Planning?

  1. Pingback: The planning department of 2025 – Planning Advisory Service

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