Planners must be part of senior council leadership teams

7 Jun 19

Money matters as much to planning as other services that may have been more visibly hit by cuts but equally important is a seat at the top table, says Royal Town Planning Institute’s Victoria Hills.

house building


The impacts of austerity on local authority services have made stark headlines and are felt by many of us.

Social care, libraries, rubbish removal, leisure amenities and other frontline services all come to mind.

But the impact on local planning, which has borne severe cuts in many areas, is less well known.

The National Audit Office recently concluded that the planning system in England is “underperforming” and not working well in terms of achieving the government’s target of building 300,000 homes per year from the mid-2020s.

It made it clear that this must be viewed in the context of local authority cutbacks, highlighting the 38% drop in core funding for planning in the past seven years.

Various Royal Town Planning Institute studies, including one using CIPFA data on resourcing, revealed the same worrying story.

Even with the 20% increase in planning fees and rising funding from pre-application advice and planning performance agreements, income from development management falls far short of covering the cost of planning applications.

This is compounded by the extension of permitted development rights, which deprive local authorities of developer contributions and impose extra responsibilities.

Our latest research showed that these cuts, combined with rounds of planning reforms, have relegated planning to a largely reactive, regulatory function in many local authorities, undermining proactive planning. Why does this all matter?

Because a well resourced and strategic planning function gives us the best chance to deliver the housing we desperately need. Our research on large-scale housing in the South West of England found that all the schemes studied were the product of statutory strategic planning processes.

The government’s focus on delivering affordable housing allowed it to add 41,530 affordable homes in England in 2016-17 compared with 32,630 in 2015-16. But this major achievement has been dependent on councils having sufficient staffing to deliver plans, process applications and, crucially, negotiate with developers.

As Section 106 planning obligations are increasingly vital to the delivery of housing and infrastructure, local authorities need leadership and training to become more effective in the face of powerful developers.

'Many councils are so frustrated with their inability to control delivery that they have begun to directly deliver housing.'

Many councils are so frustrated with their inability to control delivery that they have begun to directly deliver housing.

Planning permissions are being granted at a record rate (more than 350,000 in the year to June 2018, rising for the seventh year in a row), but this has not been matched by the number of starts. If local authorities are now expected to deliver more housing, they will need extra funding to ‘unlock’ sites.

Planning matters also because it is one of the most powerful tools for stimulating the economic growth that would help local authorities balance their books.

The NAO notes that councils’ spending on planning and development has dropped only by 15% – testament to planners’ ability to raise significant direct income. But, let’s be clear, there is a huge planning resource issue – both in terms of the capacity of the function in local authorities and in the funding of public amenities.

Leadership is crucial. This is why RTPI is campaigning for representation of chief planners at the highest levels. Our research found they are absent from 83% of council senior leadership teams.

Reinstatement would be an important step towards providing the vital join-up between investment strategies at local government level.

Victoria Hills is speaking at CIPFA’s Regeneration Property Conference in Birmingham on 10 July this year.

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