Planning Skills

[This article was originally printed in Planning Magazine, February 2008]

This month I find myself writing about the shortage of planners, the skills they bring and their contribution to shaping communities. I feel I have been here a number of times before – yet, what has changed since Egan? Yes, there are more planners and planning schools are oversubscribed, planning is again becoming a profession to be proud of, one that young people want to join – all of which is fantastic. But there is still a shortage of the skills that planners have in abundance – or do they?

My view, partial and of the public sector only, is that those skills that planners pride themselves on having – community engagement, strategic thinking, partnership working, negotiation, communication – are actually hard to find. In significant numbers of authorities, planners are struggling to get what they consider to be the ‘day job’ done. The sorts of activities for which these generic skills are required are seen to be an ‘extra’; the additional requests from the corporate centre, a burden; and the work to get the partners to understand what we do is too difficult. It is also clear that planners don’t always know what they don’t know – sometimes thinking they have all the skills they need because they haven’t really understood what the task involves.

But these generic skills are essential to doing the work of spatial planning. This is our job and will be more so into the future. What is considered to be additional to the day job is actually the day job. The need to engage with other people, services, organisations is all part of the work that planners are now required to do. To communicate effectively, to negotiate for the community, to value the contribution of partners is what the work of a spatial planner is about. Along with the planning system the work of the planner has changed – and the skills that go with that are also changing. Planners need to assess their own skills set, work out where there are gaps, find ways of developing themselves. Only by doing this will planners stay relevant and a key contributor to shaping places.

If you would like to contribute to this debate the CLG Select Committee is undertaking an enquiry into planning skills, see:


Do you know how much Planning costs ?

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, January 2008]

As we go into a new year we often take stock of where we are and what we need to do for a productive start and fresh perspective. This is particularly the case as we go into a tightening financial environment. With this in mind I wonder if you know exactly what you spend on resources and if you have enough to run your planning service effectively.

The planning sector is undergoing substantial changes in the way we work with new regimes coming into play, so at no time has it been more important to know what resources you need to meet the ever increasing demands made on your service. But before you go to the corporate centre with your begging bowl you need to be sure you are using your resources wisely.

From the diagnostic work that PAS has been carrying out in over 60 authorities we know that one of the big barriers to delivering the Local Development Framework is the ability to understand resource requirements to be able to do the job properly. From this analysis we know that almost half of those authorities involved do not understand these requirements and are therefore not able to use the resources that they do have effectively.

Understanding resource need and use will help you put a reasoned case for more. Being sufficiently resourced will ensure that you are better positioned to respond to the challenges of HDCR, fee increases and response to the HPDG in addition to the ever increasing demands of your users. Resources need to be focused on these important questions and channelled to where they can create and add value.

Maybe a new year’s resolution would be: “I will understand how much it costs to run this service, how many people I need and how I will respond to the changes ahead.”

This would be a robust way to start the new year – happy new year to you all.


[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, September 2007]

The world of local government is shifting on its axis and not just as a result of the sheer weight of paper coming out of central government. The emerging improvement culture is causing a substantial shift of its own.

Last year’s Local Government White Paper set out the foundations and direction for this new culture through a move to the outcome-focused Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) which moves away from the CPA inspection regime towards sector-led improvement. This means local government taking responsibility for identifying improvement needs and acting upon them. This is a significant sea change for local government, one that has substantial implications for planners. In this world, the role of peer review and peer support is central.

In the move from CPA to CAA, the outcomes to be achieved will be set out in the Local Area Agreement (LAA). The government’s concern about continued performance is reflected in the new National Indicator, NI157, which looks remarkably like BV109. Notwithstanding this, we need to ensure that LAA outcome targets include elements that give planners and the planning service the opportunity to demonstrate how they create real change in communities. If this can be achieved it will help put planning centre stage within central and local government’s delivery framework.

But are planning services ready to embrace this opportunity? How well do you know your service? Is it fit for purpose? And, could you identify your own areas for improvement and change without an inspector telling you?

Do you know where to access help to make change? Do you think you can embrace the sector-led challenge for service improvement? There is no choice although there is an opportunity for planning services to lead the way. If you are struggling to understand how to make this real have a look at the PAS self assessment benchmark tool on our website.

To find out more about how the services offered by PAS can help, visit

Development Management

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, September 2007]

This month I want to talk about development management, what it actually means, its role within the new planning system and how it affects the traditional divisions between policy and DC teams.

Contrary to some opinions, development management is not development control by another name. A new approach has been driven by the implementation of the 2004 Act, not referred to directly or given any clear guidance, but a fundamental and integral part of the spatial planning activity. Development management is the culture change from reactive assessment of others’ proposals to seeking and shaping developments.

Developments will need to be assessed in the way in which they contribute to the outcomes that are needed by the community – expressed in the sustainable community strategy and LDF core strategies. Typical local plans policies that are written to prevent all foreseeable sorts of undesirable development should no longer be necessary. Local policies should guide development towards fitting patterns of local distinctiveness

In this culture change, managers will need to consider the shape and structure of planning services to meet this challenge. Communication between the people who write the policies and those whose job is to facilitate good development is essential. As the spatial planning system evolves, we should look to the profession evolving to value facilitation and communication skills along side skills of spatial awareness, urban design and land use analysis. Professional judgement, will be based on an understanding of the future of a community, instead of the use of the rule book – a new, and somewhat challenging world.
Regulatory planning activity will still exist but this will become a diminishing role restricted to assessing small developments that fall outside permitted development. Would this residual activity be better integrated into other regulatory services?
Recognising the need for more guidance and direction in tackling this challenging role for planners, PAS is running a series of seminars to explore this topical issue from next month.

To find out more about how the services offered by PAS can help, visit

The new planning system

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, September 2007]

Through the spatial planning system and the place shaping agenda, planning has been given the tools to help communities achieve their ambitions.

Planners working in partnership with members as community leaders, and local partnerships, are integral to taking these tools and using them to deliver real and lasting change for the communities they serve. No one ever said that this changing role for planners would be easy to achieve. However, the knowledge and skills needed to do this are a vital part of a planner’s training. There is a need for all planners to understand what is meant by spatial planning and place shaping; how this affects the roles of members and officers; and what we all need to do differently to make the change.
From the work we do with those working on spatial planning in councils throughout England, I worry that some of the key messages about the new system have not been heard, or are not being understood.

The basics are:
• This is a different system – do not do what you used to do – it will not work.
• You must work in partnership, internally and externally – to share the load, to work spatially and the deliver the best results for your communities.
• Plans should be shaped by evidence, by all who are interested in the locality and its future and embed the use of sustainability appraisal from the beginning.
• Locally distinctive does not mean each council is different, the evidence will tell you what the issues are for your council – what your place is like.
• You will find issues are spatial and so cross administrative boundaries – work together.
• You do not have the skills to do all this – talk to others internally and externally.
• Delivery means working those who will do the delivering – the development industry and infrastructure providers need to be in from the beginning.

The rewards, both for your local communities and for you personally in grasping the spatial nettle are great; the opportunity is yours for the taking. Good luck.

To find out more about how the services offered by PAS can help, visit

Planning and Housing

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, August 2007]

I have been most interested to see that planning has been in the news recently, not only because of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s announcement of plans for three million new homes by 2020 but planning has also been the subject of a recent television news documentary programme.

And of course, we know that housing is a key interest area for Gordon Brown with his ambitious plans outlined in the recent Homes for the Future Green Paper. The planning system is crucial to being able to deliver in line with this vision to achieve the number of houses required in design, sustainability and affordability.

The recent edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches television programme highlighted a number of issues within the planning and development process, but nothing new to planners. Planning is in a very interesting position balancing working hand-in-hand with developers and the community to achieve a win-win situation for all parties.

With the demand for housing growing faster than supply and the massive challenge in both growth and market renewal areas, Local Authority planning services are under increasing pressure to deliver developments in line with both the public’s and central government’s expectations.

“Housing is at the heart of achieving the social, economic and environmental objectives that shape a community and create a sense of place.” Strong and Prosperous Communities Local Government White Paper 2006

The housing agenda is developing a life of its own. You need to be asking yourself simple questions like:

  • How are you using housing to shape and deliver your place?
  • Is housing represented on your LSP?
  • Is housing included in your sustainable community strategy?
  • Are you working with your neighbouring authorities to make the best use of all the information you have?

The work we do in PAS and the IDeA is built entirely around supporting and equipping planners, senior managers and councillors with practical and effective tools to deliver.

To find out more about the services offered at PAS visit

Collaboration and sustainable outcomes

[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, June 2007] 

Collaboration is a constant theme of both the Local Government and Planning White Papers. Collaboration, and other similar phrases such as partnership working and integrated services are consistently used within the sector, but how do we ensure these buzz words translate into practical and sustainable outcomes?

Put simply the objective of collaboration is getting the job done more efficiently and effectively to deliver better outcomes on the ground.

For planners collaboration really is essential. As planners, the issues that need to address are spatial, and as such they do not respect administrative boundaries. Therefore, in order to conduct spatial planning effectively we need to work collaboratively.

Planning departments in local authorities across the country differ in size, in the level of experience of their staff and in their capabilities. Issues such as budgets, geography and staffing levels also impact on how planning services are delivered. It is because of these differences planning services should be done in collaboration to ensure the best outcomes for communities.

Collaboration inevitably leads to change. In the way we work in terms of the way we utilise the skills and ideas of a collective group as well as change in the way we find solutions to issues. This change isn’t something that should cause concern; rather it should be embraced as a way forward in delivering excellent services. Stepping out of our comfort zones and utilising the advice and assistance on offer can only lead to better results for all. As planners we need to be able to match our resources to the demands of spatial planning.

PAS is currently working with pioneering local authorities to provide case studies on how best to put collaboration into action. It is part of the PAS’ aim to facilitate self-sustaining change and improvement PAS helps councils provide faster, fairer, more efficient and better quality services.

The work conducted by the PAS is also outlined in the Delivering the Difference: PAS annual report 2007, which was released on June 25. To find out more about the services offered at PAS visit

Planning Peer Review

[This column was originally published in Planning Magazine, March 2007] 

A local authority that has recently participated in the new Planning Peer Review said: ‘We decided it would be a very useful health check and also help us to continue to improve. What was a high performing authority five years ago would not be high performing now if it stood still.’

The Planning Advisory Service is offering a bespoke Planning Peer Review service, carried out by senior planners and Councillors from other councils with no agenda other than to help. I’m inviting planning authorities to closely examine and expose their services to some critical friends.

The review is based on the well-regarded flagship service of the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA). 20? Councils have already used the planning peer review to help them to sustain current good performance and map a route to further improvement. This challenge appeals to authorities that want to take a close look at what works and what doesn’t. It provides planners with a chance to review the real issues at the heart of an effective service: customer focus, working with partners, interacting with the public and delivering outcomes.

We know that the planning sector values the benchmark of an ideal planning service against which they can test their services that PAS has published. The benchmark has been developed and is led by by the sector. It is a useful tool for all planning authorities, not just under performing ones. So how does peer review work? The 1st step is the the self-assessment process. This enables authorities to take a close and honest look at their services, and in itself is a helpful improvement tool. This internal look can often get closer to the roots of success and problems than inspectors or consultants. Following on from the self-assessment, a team of planning professionals and experienced members using the self-assessment document as a starting point interviews staff and members across the authority. The process is transparent with the internal peer review team sharing their progress on the final report, so that nothing comes as a surprise and the internal team has an opportunity to refute anything that they do not agree with. The whole process is similar to a close examination in the mirror, followed by honest feedback from a friend who wants the best outcome for you.

PAS suggests follow on work after the final report is issued and participants join a community of fellow review participants to share information and discuss issues. Further information is available at