Planning departments are the backbone of sustainable local development. They set the strategic direction for the development of an area, determining what is built and where in accordance with design standards and environmental policies. They decide whether to grant or refuse planning permission for individual developments.
To do these things properly requires a range of skills and knowledge. They need a sense of the strategic challenges and opportunities of an area, along with a granular understanding of existing places and the people who live in them and skills in public engagement and political representation. All this, in turn, depends on councils having well-resourced planning departments.
But planning departments have had it tough in recent years. Despite increasing demand for housing, they’ve experienced some of the biggest cuts in local authority budgets. In the last eight years, planning and development service budgets have more than halved, while housing delivery targets have more than doubled. And a similar trend has been seen in metropolitan boroughs across the UK.
Some may argue that a leaner planning department is no bad thing, spurring councils to innovate and adopt new technologies which help to streamline the planning process. Planning fees and planning performance agreements can still help meet the costs of processing individual applications. But it is harder to use pots of money for strategic planning and engagement.
A 2018 survey of capacity in planning departments found that over 40 per cent of boroughs needed extra capacity in consultation and engagement. There was a shortage of other skills sets too, particularly in-house design skills such as master planning, urban design and architecture. And despite some moves to simplify the viability process, many councils lack the skills needed to interrogate viability and development appraisals – which can ultimately jeopardise what the community gains from a development.
It’s not just the councils themselves who are concerned; private sector developers agree that under-resourced planning departments are holding development back. The challenge is so great that even the Minister of State for Housing is considering a skills-sharing programme for senior planners.
And now the concern has started to trickle out of the sector and into the public domain. According to the Raynsford Review, people don’t think that councils are able to protect the public interest within the planning system. Instead, most believe that the economic gain of landowners and developers takes priority and this, in turn, has led to a breakdown of trust in the system.
It is worth noting, however, that poorly funded planning departments aren’t a barrier to building in itself; nationally, councils approve nine in 10 planning applications and last year worked with developers to permission over 350,000 homes, an 11-year high. But it does mark a loss of capacity to carry out strategic planning, to hold private developers to account and to properly engage residents with plans which will change their neighbourhoods.
Yes, councils can commission world-leading architects to support on master plans, housing can be built by joint ventures, housing associations or private developers, but if borough planners are struggling to keep up with their day-to-day workload then the quality of place suffers. As do local people.
All this is not to excuse councils who fall below expectations. Many councils could be better at using existing resources and doing things differently. And there are some interesting ways to get private money for more active work without conflicts of interest – as the Mayor’s Public Practice scheme shows. But we won’t get the new housing developments we need – which have the support of local communities – without well-resourced, highly skilled and locally engaged planning departments.