Austerity and the post-2010 planning reforms have created a profession which is losing its collective values and traditions, producing a "box ticking culture" according to a report from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Depleted staffing is leading to some authorities spending large sums to fill gaps using agency staff.
Freedom of Information requests revealed that Stratford-on-Avon and Torridge Councils spent nearly £273,000 and £314,000 respectively on staff from six employment agencies to provide planning services in high demand periods. One authority in the home counties is using a company in Northern Ireland to process its planning applications using an outsourced company.
The report says the recent "pro-housing and pro-growth" agendas have been to the detriment of a more holistic model of planning, designed to promote the public good, and that outsourcing and de-regulation have led to staff churn, "proceduralism" and a "fractured and complex" working environment.
Five English authorities have outsourced the entire planning department to a private company, such as Capita, three have created local trading companies to provide services to themselves. Other models are wholly-owned, or arms-length subsidiaries, sometimes working across authorities and often involving staff transfers.
Dan Slade, RTPI research officer who worked on the report said: "Almost every authority we spoke to said that they would rather not outsource if they could. They had the view that keeping planning in-house makes it more efficient in the long-term and retains institutional memory."
With the public sector facing harsh cutbacks and image problems, the report argues that senior planners are increasingly drawn to the private sector and consultancies. These offer an "enticing, well-regarded and well-paying alternative".
Mr Slade said: "The report shows deep concern in a lot of authorities about a lack of leadership, meaning that they can’t provide services efficiently and effectively. The don’t have a person at a senior level who understands the role of planning in its proactive and creative modes, linking it to wider objectives, such as regeneration or health."
He added: "Development targets combined with cuts have often led to authorities retreating into a procedural, process-driven approach, because they have to put resources into processing applications. For this reason, the more creative and ambitious aspects of planning are being neglected. The best way to achieve more housing numbers is not to focus on processes and procedures. We need a transformational change so that planning is more involved in strategic thinking."
A new breed of "austerity planners", says the report, are in high demand. They are generally highly-paid and rapidly-promoted but "often have little room for proactive planning or independently executing their professional judgment … eroding their jobs satisfaction and their interest in critical reflection".
Victoria Hills, RTPI chief executive, said: "Our research uncovers a prevailing sense that local authority planners face huge challenges to their ability to plan effectively in the public interest. This is an issue we take seriously. That’s why we are campaigning local authorities to put planning back at the top table of corporate decision-making and will continue to make the case for better resourcing."
The latest study, the largest of its kind for many years, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted with three universities, using UK-wide focus groups and FoI requests sent to more than 400 planning authorities.
It backs the finding of an RTPI survey last year, which revealed that 83% of councils have relegated planning to lower positions in their corporate structure. The head of planning, it found, is a member of the top management team in only 17% of councils.