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Life on the Front Line

I like it when people get in touch with me to suggest topics for 50 Shades of Planning Podcast episodes because, firstly, it means that people are listening to it and also, and most importantly, it means I do not have to come up with ideas myself. I found this message from a team leader at a local authority striking and sobering though.
In a subsequent conversation the person that sent this confided in me that their team is virtually in crisis mode.

It is probably fair to say that the planning system is in crisis, but then it is also probably fair to say that the planning system is always in crisis…

There is, of course, the issue of resources. Whilst according to a Planning magazine survey slightly more LPAs are predicting growth in planning department budgets (25%) rather than a contraction (22%), this has to be seen in the context of a 38% real-terms fall in net current expenditure on planning functions between 2010–11 and 2017–18.

Beyond resources though the current crisis feels more like an existential crisis of confidence. Catriona Riddell has written in Planning magazine about low morale in local planning authorities, citing hostility towards planners and the planning system from what can feel like every quarter.

That low morale is manifesting itself in the ability of LPAs to attract and retain staff. “The biggest headaches surround securing the services of more experienced planners with 10 to 15 years under their belt”, said one head of service to Planning magazine. “There is only so long that vacancies can remain unfilled without a severe knock-on consequences for the delivery of services”.

To inform a 50 Shades episode on the local authority staffing crisis with Catriona Riddell, Peter Geraghty and Paul Brocklehurst I launched a 'Call for Evidence' in Episode 57 of the Podcast, inviting people across the profession to share their thoughts on what life is actually like on the front line. It became apparent quite quickly that we would not be able to do the submissions justice in an hour-long conversation so they are reproduced here in full. The submissions are not edited in any way. They have been cut straight from my inbox and pasted on here.

Catriona, Peter, Paul and I have now recorded a conversation and it has been published as Episode 61 of the 50 Shades of Planning Podcast, but if anybody else would though like to contribute to this blog then do please email me at samstafford@hotmail.com. I will keep posting everything else that I receive.

Submission 1

The last 24 months have been miserable. I work for an LPA that has never been fully staffed, the whole time I have been there. We had a load of people leave at once and it took forever to fill the positions, so as the pandemic started we had even less staff. Then we had countless IT problems, the system logged us off up to 10 times a day at the start of the pandemic - because the system wasn’t designed to cope with so many people at home. It was beyond difficult to get any work done when the system was constantly kicking you out. It created a backlog - that’s been difficult to get rid of and IT problems have continued…

Then came the influx of applications, we couldn’t cope. We were already understaffed and having our workload rise so dramatically, was unmanageable. At one pointy colleague got promoted and was doing their old and new job (classic LPA) until their role was backfilled - for no extra pay!

Furlough was the killer for us, people had more time to chase their applications, so we were taking back to back to back calls of people saying what’s happening. Neighbours had more time to complain about applications and ring constantly to moan about them, we couldn’t do any work for constant phone calls. We had to start being brutal and telling people if they wanted a decision they had to stop calling because if all 70+ applications called for an update we would never, ever get any work done - never-mind the neighbours also calling for a moan. We had a rise in applications being called into planning committee, so much so we regularly had to put on extra ordinary planning committees every month for months on end. I don’t think agents are aware either how much extra work planning committee is.

People have regularly acted like planning officers are lazy and doing nothing (slagging us off all over social media). But the reality is officers are working late, working weekends and losing hours (aka working for free - despite being underpaid already…). Customers and agents are emotionally pressuring officers regularly - one colleague was threatened that if they didn’t make a decision within a week the applicant would sack all their staff. This isn’t a one off incident either, we regularly get horrible phone calls and emails. My colleagues have had voicemails calling them pigs, corrupt, useless etc. I regularly have to end phone calls because people are being abusive. Last week a colleague was reduced to tears on a phone call with an aggressive customer.

The quality of applications has been shocking. Validation is a joke so called professional planning agents are just submitting rubbish schemes with information missing and then arguing instead of just providing the additional information. As officers we are having to hold the hands of planning agents who should know what to do. we have to tell agents exactly what to submit. agents are submitting applications in flood zones with no FRAs. So what are applicants paying them for? One agent even admitted he just submits and hopes we will spot his mistakes … There’s also a rise in people applying for permission without agents and just have no idea what to do - so we spend a long time explaining what a red line boundary is or why plans need to be to scale. It’s time consuming and when we don’t help we get corporate complaints so we’re in a catch 22. Were doing more refusals than ever because applications are just terrible.

There have been numerous other issues like key consultees having one junior member of staff. All the other team members left and consultations taking months to come back. Eventually they went off with stress for months and months (understandably) creating another huge backlog. Enforcement complaints are through the roof - we are often roped in to advise, which is just unseen work. Agents and applicants have been less than sympathetic, constantly threatening appeals or complaints. It’s really demoralising and morale is at an all time low. Agents are refusing EOTs and just generally being helpful and unpleasant.

Our current situation is that we’ve done more work than ever for the same pay, no thank yous - just abuse for not getting decisions out fast enough. We are still understaffed they’re refusing to cover people going on maternity leave. We have two people on long term sick with stress and several people have told their managers this week they are so stressed they are having physical symptoms from stress. Even though we made more money than ever it isn’t being spent on planning - The LPA refuse to pay us overtime or get any consultants in help with the increase in work. We’re at a position where we could have a domino effect if one more person goes on stress -I’m worried that more and more people will go off sick as the workload will just go up and up and up.

I’m honestly thinking about quitting the planning profession altogether, I’m fed up of the abuse. I’m underpaid as it is and if we don’t get a pay rise in line with inflation, I’ll be taking a pay cut for doing more work than ever. Everyone is burnt out and fed up.

There’s probably more but this is long enough as is.

Submission 2

I’m a Director of Property at a large County Council. Aside from changes on our own property, we have a residential development arm and a substantial school (especially SEND) program and also specialist builds - such as care homes.

We use outsourced services to do our design and put in planning applications. The lack of staff across the whole system (including us as Highway / flood authority) … is our major risk

The quality of our applications is (objectively) high - in terms of documentation, design etc. all will be planning compliant (ie. Affordable).

There needs to be a fundamental debate about resources (and as a result quality) to the planning system. The delays cause financial, reputation, and societal issues (ie delaying a SEND school) … it feels unsustainable

- we’ve had a 9 month wait for a response on a very minor planning application from submission (still no date for resolution)

- 180 degree U turns on pre-planning advice

- 6 week waits for planning applications to be validated

- 7 months to get planning conditions issued

- endless issues with LLFA


We do see a high-turnover and burn out of planning staff (so we are sympathetic) and some of the better planning officers jumping to private sector.

Sone larger County / multiple District level planning departments or legally binding targets would help. To be frank just getting people round a table would help …..

Submission 3

I am a Senior Planning Officer working in busy development management team at a relatively high performing unitary authority. I am often greatly frustrated by the fact that planning media is dominated by views from applicants, agents, housebuilders and other interest groups, but rarely are the individual views of front line DM or Policy Planning Officers expressed.

There most certainly does appear to be something of crisis in staffing at local authorities which is impeding timely and high quality decision making. We currently have only three senior planning officers working in DM covering every strategically important, large scale or complex development in the district. This creates obvious difficulties in trying to juggle caseloads; reading and summarising 1000 objection comments on one application, whilst also trying to negotiate a s106 and agree conditions on another application, whilst also discharging 12 conditions on an application you last dealt with 2 years ago can feel overwhelming. You are forced to work at such pace that you have little time to double check things and you worry about the quality/robustness of your decision. Worse still is that there is little time to really try and add value to process (you know doing actual planning!).

A potentially bigger issue than the capacity of planning officers in the service, is the capacity of the various specialisms that we rely upon. The longest delays in the planning process, from the LPA side, generally arise from the availability of expert advice on technical matters such as highways, ecology, landscape or urban design. I have lost count of the amount of applications that have gone past their target dates with just one technical issue outstanding which is preventing me from finalising my committee report or issuing a discharge of conditions. I am painfully aware of damage this can cause in terms of holding up delivery of much needed housing (or other development) and how it feeds into the narrative of Council’s being slow and bureaucratic. The council has recently removed its dedicated urban designer post from its structure in an effort to save money.

Catriona Riddell’s article in Planning Magazine about morale in LPAs is pretty much spot on. However, I would challenge your suggestion that this is not actually an issue of resources. A quarter of planning departments predicting a growth in their budgets against a background where planning departments have been amongst the hardest hit budgets over the last decade of austerity is hardly indicative of adequate resourcing! I would point to the recent news about Cornwall Council planning to cut the budget of their planning department by £1million!

Increasing budgets is crucial, as it means we would be able to hire and retain the necessary experienced staff to deal with complex applications which we need to deliver our commitments on housing and employment growth. Some posts are being advertised as regular officer posts to keep costs down when in reality the work that post will be handling will require someone with a senior level of experience. Unsurprisingly, we are finding it difficult to recruit and fill these posts.

Whilst we have previously been able to fill posts internally, the impacts of the pandemic and homeworking have heavily impact upon the development of more junior staff (who have been unable to learn from being around others) and has also made other re-evaluate their priorities, such that don’t want the additional hassle and stress that comes with a senior position.

Rigid local authority structures also do not help the situation meaning that those who want to progress and advance to senior positions have to wait until someone else leaves or seek other opportunities in different authorities or the private sector. Greater flexibility to promote and retain staff is definitely required, but given constraints on budgets is unlikely to happen. Movement between public sector planners and private sector planners also appears to be very one-way, with few from the private sector ever returning to work for the Council. This is indicative of the difference in career prospects that can be offered by the private sector compared to the public sector.

Digitisation of the planning system will likely help, but is will not be the silver bullet the government seems to think it will be. Nor will it be a replacement for having an adequate number of planning professionals available to apply their judgement to the complex issues thrown up by development proposals. Furthermore, Council’s with their centralised IT systems tend to be pretty slow to adopt and operate these systems in a manner which truly makes things more efficient for planning staff to do their jobs.

Personally, I love being a public sector planner even if I don’t always love working in a Council. I know that DM planners like myself and my colleagues are trying their very best to achieve the same goals as most planners desire, e.g. delivering sustainable development, and relish the intellectual challenge of balancing and mediating the different interests. However, the frustrations for a DM planner are many and largely out of our own hands. More staffing in both DM and the related supporting professions is definitely required to increase both the timeliness and quality of decision making.

Submission 4

I work in a very busy LPA - we currently have almost 800 applications on our books. With 11 staff members having left since March 2020 (this is across our department) and it takes months to fill the gaps so officers can have over 80 cases on their workload at once. Currently we have more agency staff in our DM team than permanent staff. We have moved all of our policy team to being temporary DM officers in one shape or another when we are supposed to be doing a local plan review, as we have hit our five year review point.

Submission 5

Until a month ago, I was a senior manager in a local authority planning service. I had worked in local government for the past 15 years, the entirety of my planning career. When I started my career in local government, the planning service I joined was small but well resourced and with a broad range of skills and experience. This meant that there were lots of people to learn from, both in terms of technical planning knowledge but also the skills of customer service, working with applicants and, importantly, working with politicians. The other big difference looking back to that time was that whilst LPA planners could be the butt of a good joke, we were generally respected by the public, or so it felt at the time, and “the system” was far less complex and far less reliant on other chronically understaffed parts of the public sector.

As my career has developed, senior planner, principal planner, DM Manager and then a further senior managerial role, across different LPAs, the change in the make up of a planning department has been huge. Experienced professionals have retired or moved on (yes, me too now I guess), and have become almost impossible to replace. This has meant that senior posts have increasingly been filled by less experienced planners for the sake of filling the gap, something which I think is neither fair on them as they are faced with applications and decisions which they are not experienced enough to deal with, nor the users of the service. LPA’s are so reluctant to increase planning officer salaries to compete with the private sector for the best people, but they will pay £50 per hour for an average agency contractor! It is commonplace for DM officers in the places I have worked to have a caseload of 60-100 applications at any one time (not including discharge of conditions), a completely unsustainable position, particularly when combined with almost permanent home working environment. All home working achieves is loneliness and burnout.

The level of challenge to decisions has increased beyond recognition with threats of Judicial Review a daily occurrence, something which for more junior members of staff, and even more senior ones, can be very daunting. Alongside this, large sections of the public that we deal with in a planning service will openly express the view that planners are corrupt, in the pockets of developers or some other derogatory analysis. Unfortunately, in my experience, this allegation is not helped by the attitude of many local politicians who will stoke these fires in their objection to new developments (even if they are on allocated sites!). Social media has been terrible for this and I know of some councils who have had to publicly address such allegations in order to defend their officers! Planning, at the district level in particular, has become a battleground with the planners stuck in the middle…. Government says build, build, build, local politicians and communities say not there, not there and not there either…… more applications called to committee, double the work, all day at committee, recommendation overturned, application refused etc etc and repeat…… don’t even get me started on poor planning policy colleagues trying to get a new local plan through!

Then we have the statutory consultees, highways, LLFA, Environment Agency, Historic England to name but a few. My experience of many of them is a similar paralysis. Understaffed, too much work and frankly scared to make a decision because they are likely to get attacked for it (I don’t blame them). All this does is serve to slow the system down even more, to the frustration of everyone. Perhaps the government could look at funding its own statutory advisors to a level where they can proactively engage with the planning system.

This is without talking about strategic scale new developments of multiple thousands of new homes with just one officer working on them! Commonplace again unfortunately.

I loved working in local government a lot of the time, the chance to work on really important projects and to make a positive difference to the areas where I worked, but ultimately, all of the above was making it harder and harder and turning me into a different person who was cross a lot of the time and miserable at the end of the day. Once I realised that (or had it pointed out to me by my family) I knew that I had to make a change. I have recently joined a firm in the private sector and it’s fine. I do miss my former colleagues and I miss how planning used to make me feel. Hopefully after a break I might feel able to return to an LPA role. I want that to be the case but at the moment, it seems impossible.

Submission 6

I will keep it brief. I have worked in a busy LPA for a number of years. Before the pandemic, the 'work hard, play hard' culture and social aspect of the office offset the pressure of statutory timescales and high caseloads. Since the pandemic however, it has been pretty miserable. The support of my colleagues (whom I deem friends) has disappeared working remotely from home and agents/applicants have become ever more demanding, whilst high caseloads and targets have not ceased.

At home I work long hours (including weekends) without a 'thank you' (from either higher management or applicants).

It got to the point where I had such bad stress and anxiety that I have taken off a few months unpaid. I am unsure if I want to return to my job, but I do not see the landscape of local government planning improving for a sometime.

Submission 7

I work as a non-DM planner in a local authority. I echo everything I’ve read so far.

A conversation with older colleagues highlighted the gulf between what the planning system was designed for and how it currently functions; when they started their career they had an entire urban design team. Today it’s a luxury for a LPA to even have one dedicated Urban Designer let alone a team. Policy planning is difficult when there are no colleagues to be sounding boards, critical friends or just someone to have an understanding gripe to.

DM is where the greatest issues lie, not just in staffing levels but the sheer volume of work and the expectations placed upon them, – heightened by the flood of pandemic applications – but as majority house extensions they’re usually the easy ones.

When major applicants arrive with a small army of planners, designers, consultants, sales-managers, lawyers and PR gurus my heart sinks. Usually such applications are dealt with by one officer going into that meeting. Sometimes they may be able to take one of the in-house specialists with them; urban design (if they have one), landscape design (if they have one), conservation (if they have one), highways (if they can spare someone)... but more often than not it’s just a single officer with a major developer. The odds are stacked.

When I have the opportunity to attend RTPI events or CPDs I am often struck by how the audience is usually LPA planners and the presenters are often from big developers or private firms. This strikes me as reinforcing what an earlier anonymous response has said: “I am often greatly frustrated by the fact that planning media is dominated by views from applicants, agents, housebuilders and other interest groups, but rarely are the individual views of front line DM or Policy Planning Officers expressed.”

Saying that, where would we get the time to put a presentation together? It feels LPAs are under-valued, under-resourced, under-pressure and under-attack.

“The system is clearly broken” they cry... is a car broken just because you’ve refused to put fuel into it?

Submission 8

So I’ll start up front and say I love planning. I love moaning about it, I love fixing problems, i love saying mmmmmmm it’s a grey area!, I love seeing stuff happen and I love the fact it’s the glue that holds stuff together. I wish we could be cooler - I’ve met planners in Europe - and they are much cooler, there is much to learn.

But right now running a LPA is hard. Austerity and covid feel like they have finally broken Local Authority budgets. Added to that, the nation is broken people are cross and there is nothing better to take out that ire than your neighbours shed. Enforcement officers sit in their bedrooms and getting shouted at. Caseloads are too high, we know they are. Applications are never valid when they arrive. There’s too much policy stuff - shall we do design codes, net gain, a new local plan. No matter where you look it’s needs a bit of money and people ( don’t get me started on planning technology and the rights and wrongs of the system) .

We don’t have time to teach our newest recruits the broader stuff, the outcome we want rather than the process - we hope they will pick it up because I really want people to grow to love what we do not just churn out decisions. I’m not excusing everything, we have poor performance and the public sector is not good at dealing with it. And yes we make it hard for ourselves, arguing in public with internal consultees - no other business would do that. But at its heart we are trying to find the right answer and it’s usually complex stuff (silly shed apps aside) - we are the LA diplomatic core.

And the ask of the system keeps growing we now are expected to find a funds to prop up other government services like health and the police - who seem to have forgot that at the root of everything is a good secure warm home and a job you can get to easily. Every single interest body wants to load on more and more and before we know it , we’ve delivered even less affordable housing and you wonder whether any cycle will ever be broken. Whatever you think about housing developers the expectation that new development can do everything is for the birds.

And local plans let’s not go there.

But if you find yourself saying ‘oh no, did planning break him?’ you know it’s not great.

But I don’t want to get too down hearted because as I said I love planning. And I’ve got loads of ideas. Let’s start with some quick wins. A good fee increase followed by annual RPI + inflation year on year ringfenced, a little bit more planning delivery grant, someone make the planning portal better, some other ways to deliver more affordable housing and government just find something that we can stop - how about playing pitch strategies or SHLAA. Oh and make the water companies, EA and NE sort out phosphates. (Ok, ok that might be a step too far but we all need some Christmas hope).

Submission 9

I joined local authority around 20 years ago and just remember the shear excitement (I know excitement!) of my first job and all the great schemes I was involved in, almost from day 1. I recall being mentored by experienced planners and environment professionals and nothing was too much trouble to ask or seek guidance on. I was allowed to shadow on large schemes while being gently inducted with smaller schemes of my own. I was encouraged to read and learn, and not just endless planning guidance but wider environmental context by people like Kevin Lynch, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. I was sent on regular additional CPD and a further Uni course (which was paid for). In short time and space was given for me to grow as a professional.

Work felt stimulating and even fun which might sound odd for a local authority role. Work on big schemes was iterative and negotiations with developers frequent and productive. Even when agreement wasn’t reached we worked to reduce to differences so appeals were fought on the key issues rather than everything being lumped into one. We had the time to call back, seek amendments, discuss options and give greater clarity. Applications had well detailed drawings, full sections, context, detailed justification and were in the main submitted by qualified professionals.

Sadly over the last 10 years I have seen a steady erosion of the workplace I came into Reduced resources and increased workloads have gone from uncomfortable to unrealistic. New planners get little support or training and options for career development have all but disappeared unless you move authorities or go into private practice. Pay has continually failed to keep up with the cost of living and I know of some junior members of staff struggling to pay bills. Unpaid overtime is now the norm with many officers, working late into the evening and at weekends. Appeals are badly managed with officers being given little time to prepare and having little support which I know is the opposite to how many are dealt with by developers. In one recent case we had one planning officer up against 6 specialist expert witnesses.

Levels of work are unsustainable and stress in my current authority is common place. I know of at least 8 members of staff having gone off in the last year with work related stress and I’ve seen close friends in tears at work on several occasions. We’ve also lost 11 members of staff in 18 months through retirements, redundancy and moving to private practice - many of those were our more experienced planners. Our new members of staff are less experienced or we are forced to go out to numerous agency staffing to fill certain posts. We rarely get to assist with solutions on schemes now and simply ‘managing’ the case to a recommendation becomes the directive.

In short its a far cry from the environment I joined 20 years back. I still love some bits of the job but year on year they become fewer and fewer. At some point I’ll leave but possibly more to retain my wellbeing than for any career ambition. I get annoyed at what’s happened to the role because at its best it is a great and interesting career. Hope this doesn't sound too misty eyed the job wasn’t always perfect and local authorities have their faults/issues. However it did feel like we used to achieve real quality and delivery rather than at present a job that feels like a drive for delivering numbers over quality of place.

Submission 10

I lead a planning service in a busy urban unitary. I read the submissions so far with a sense of complete familiarity and felt compelled to add my views. What others have said is true - Council planners so often do not have a voice - and if we do it’s moderated by the fact we are representing ’the Council’. I would not feel able to say this publicly.

The last two years have been utterly horrendous. Absolutely and utterly horrendous. I have watched our service collapse under the strain whilst everything I would normally want to do about it I have been unable to - either because we were working primarily remotely, or because we have no money. Remote working has had severe and lasting impacts on my mental health. For my wellbeing I have been allowed to return to the office with a small group of others but I now have permanent anxiety and OCD - particularly triggered by any thought of home working and isolation again. I can cope with all the rubbish thrown at me in this job if I’ve got people around me to let off steam with in the moment. I can’t cope if I’m sitting alone at home.

Full time home working is marvellous for some occupations. For DM planners, it’s a total disaster. DM thrives and survives on two things - the quick informal second opinion, and the sense of camaraderie with colleagues when things are difficult. Neither of those things are possible when working remotely. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though - people sitting on their own in their bedrooms taking constant abuse, difficulties in training younger staff as all the informal networks have disappeared, IT issues meaning the software takes 90 minutes to load up, looking at complex plans on a 13” laptop screen because that’s all you’re given, and staring at that 13” screen for 10 hours a day with no breaks. The pandemic brought with it a 30% increase in application numbers. There is just nowhere for those cases to go. Burnout - loss of focus, morale and productivity in the team is completely apparent. We have a backlog of over 400 applications awaiting determination and a similar number of enforcement complaints. Even if we all worked every hour in the day we just couldn’t get through all the work.

However, across the Council as a whole there is a rush to embed permanent majority home working and reduce office space. According to the corporate centre any objection to that is simply anxiety about new ways of working, which will be assuaged by reinforcing the messaging. So, apparently, if you tell the planning department enough times that home working is really great, eventually it will become so. Even more infuriatingly, I was offering flexibility and a day WFH a week all the way back in 2016 - and people generally chose not to take it up - yet the idea that I’d like the team to sit together when they are in the office rather than in a ‘village’ makes me a dinosaur. So I just don’t see how this is ever going to get any better. I’m beginning to think it’s not for me any more. And I love planning. I really love it. My calling is in the public sector, so what I’ll do instead, I don’t know.

This is combined with people at home having more time on their hands and working from home themselves. This leads to 20 page objection letters for a single storey rear extension, complaints about construction work, complaints about people using their gardens, complaints about businesses like car washes which have been getting on with it for years before hand but suddenly went quiet- and the neighbours want to retain that quiet - because they’re trying to work. Endless emails to enforcement about builders blocking drives and expecting us to go straight down there like a blue light service and do something about it. Complaints to the Chief Exec when we don’t rush down immediately and get builders to move. Complaints about officer reports not covering every single tiny matter of detail in 20 page objection letters. Reams of personal information embedded in representations which needs to be redacted and checked twice before we let people see them - and of course they want to see them because they’ve got time to do so, and we have to because it’s the public planning file. Agents also too busy and blaming us if their applications are invalid. 30 page complaints about decisions with dossiers of 30 or 40 other extensions which either did or didn’t get permission and demands that each of them are looked at and explained in comparison to the decision they don’t like. Vexatious JRs on commercial not planning grounds. I could go on and on. All this just adds to the workload and grind and takes any of the fun and inventiveness out of the job.

Our senior planners are drowning under ever increasing complexity in applications and difficulties with consultees. We don’t have a highways consultee - at all - until January, because there’s only one of them and he’s off sick. So anything that needs a LHA response has to go on hold. The EHOs are running round with Covid enforcement and I am getting push back from their manager for sending consultation responses over. But planners can’t interpret an acoustic survey. EHOs are incredibly risk averse because of all the noise complaints we have had during the pandemic so anything noise producing is objected to outright. I don’t blame them - they’ve had a similarly horrendous time and I can quite understand them not wanting to add to their workload.

Members have gone completely bonkers. Our Planning Committee is now a competition to see who can be most offensive about applications. They used to be so sensible and professional sounding. Of course there were overturns but they were well reasoned on planning merits. They would listen to officer advice. None of them actually talk about the merits of a case anymore - just how appalling it is that someone is applying retrospectively, or parking misery, or searching for a reason to refuse something. My bosses say I should train them more so they understand what to do better but I have done tons of training and they simply don’t listen to a word I say because they don’t want to. Virtual Planning Committee actually worked quite well, except it was cut from 3 hours to 2 hours max (for wellbeing reasons!) and therefore we didn’t get through all the business and ended up having to have a second meeting the following week, with all the knock on impacts on workload.

Recruitment is incredibly difficult. Good, young planners move quickly into the private sector when they realise they will be paid significantly more and shouted at much less. We’re carrying 4 vacancies. We can’t even get decent agency staff. Our managers spend all their time training people and then they move on. The quality of some of the applications for jobs we receive is really poor and we often can’t appoint to posts from the pool of candidates. I’ve learnt the hard way that if in doubt don’t recruit. It’s not surprising - who would want this? When I started in planning 20 years ago the vast majority of my uni course mates went into local authorities. No more. We’ve barely anyone in their 50s - they’ve all gone during austerity.

What would I do about it? I don’t know. I wish I did. I’m not even sure more money would solve the problem - at least not in the short term. We need to radically change the culture and system in local authorities and make them an attractive place to work again. That sounds defeatist and I’m not defeatist. At least, I wasn’t, two years ago. Now I’m just tired and it all feels like its too much - and all my colleagues feel the same.

Submission 11

I wished to respond to the call out for the issue of staffing crisis in LPAs. I will bullet point my story in a hope to make it a little briefer!

  • I have been a development management planning officer for the last 7 years, a chartered member of the RPTI for 3. To date, I have worked for a County Planning Authority, but I am leaving development management planning for 3 cores reasons. 1. I am finding it increasingly hard to stand up against the dishonest pressure to approve unsustainable development; 2. The need to remove myself from the stress and burnout in a positive manner; and 3. The complete lack of self-autonomy, career development and remuneration.
  • I am a loyal and honourable person. The standards to which I hold myself, and my work, are important to me. In order to fight for the planning process, one needs to believe in it. I believe in sustainability, in the circular economy, in positive benefits for society and the environment, in climate change action, in integrity and impartiality. Unfortunately, I am becoming quite convinced that the system is played in ways that delivers none of those things:
    • Sustainability means sustainable in perpetuity, not whatever someone thinks suits them best;
    • Highest quality means highest quality, let us see the beauty;
    • Viability should be considered for the community and the environment, not for short-term profiteering of private business – this is not sustainable. We do not need any more unaffordable houses. The system feeds the rich at the cost of the rest of us and the environment;
    • Circular economy needs to be delivered, waste needs to genuinely, and honestly, be raised up the hierarchy, not the deceptive message that is currently given to the public; and
    • Planning Authorities are AUTHORITIES (the clue is in the name). Too much public money is wasted trying to help undeserving applications that just are not good enough.
  • I believe that Regulation 3 (LPAs self-determining their own applications) needs to end. I have been pushed to the edge of offering my own resignation when my own council corporation maneuvered and pressured to ensure granting permission for a very poor, ill planned development that directly opposed the organisation’s own climate change emergency declaration and strategy. Time and again my integrity and impartiality as a member of the RTPI is challenged, by my own council as much as anyone, and I feel I have little support from my employee or the RTPI;
  • The complete misalignment the current planning system has with climate change action and the environment, and no sign of this anytime soon. I have strived to engage with the climate change crisis, it is extremely stressful to know we are in a key position to help this cause and prevent the end of society as we know it. Yet we have no policy to say no to destructive and inconsiderate development that makes no positive contribution what-so-ever - it is meant to be an emergency!;
  • One of my greatest, daily challenges is the problematic set up of the processes of development management. There is no self-autonomy as an officer; this prevents empowerment and a sense of achievement. The consultation process is quite confrontational, particularly due to the under-resourcing of consultees resulting in the very, very long times taken to respond to us, or the regular believe of the public that permission is a done-deal and the whole planning process is a corrupt cover-up. Current technology used by the authorities seems to make the job harder and take longer, rather than helping. I would say at least 50% of my time is consumed in ineffective work, feeding the issue of under resourcing. Doing the maths, the energy I put in as a case officer just does not justify the output. I am an innovative, skilled and experienced 40-something, I have so much more to offer than being stuck on a conveyer belt of mediocre - I should be creating and enabling progressive advancements for a sustainable future;
  • I am tired of broken promises on promotion opportunities, rewards for performance, and bonuses for taking on additional responsibilities. The job has taken a major social impact from the work from home practice. In some ways, it is brilliant - a real opportunity to reinvent office work. We sit on a paradigm shift that allows geographically free choice for planning officers to work remotely for any authority in the world. Employees are going to need to start ensuring their workers have enjoyable jobs and fare remuneration, perhaps getting on and dealing with that decade long pay freeze! Planners are visionary project managers, we have so many of the skills needed in today’s world.
All the above has caused me to burnout. The last year being at a level of work induced stress that caused sleepless nights, panic attacks, and, difficult as it is to own up to, self-harm. My career and health could have gone one of two ways - remove myself from DM planning or be broken by it.

In the end, I really believe most planners just want to be allowed to plan, to make the world a better place. To ‘care’ is a critical characteristic to motivate the drive towards a positive future for our society, but this is not beneficial for a planner at this time. The role of Development Management Officer is not sustainable. It needs respect. Respect from Government, with the tools to stop dealing with crap applications and to deliver true sustainability, quality and beauty; from employees, with fair wages and support; and from the public, with the understanding that public sector planners are not the enemy, we fight every day for better places, its just we are only given a blunt butter knife to bring to the gunfight.

Submission 12

I have read all the issues raised, which are heavily DM focused. The challenges in policy are fundamentally different. Yes, there are some teams with barely anyone in them. However, those that do have planners in them, in my experience, aren't that much better off. As an area of the profession, planning policy has been so browbeaten that anyone with any passion for forward or strategic planning has left. Those who stayed have been burnt so many times that they dare not stick their neck out against members, or senior management, when they have crazy ideas or get the completely wrong end of the stick. The lack of leadership and competent management is a real issue, and it makes the rest of the team underneath feel depressed. But it seems like self-preservation, which is even more depressing. It is uninspiring, and if you do want to do things properly, well, you burn yourself out because you hit your head against a brick wall every day, explaining why things are a terrible idea and will ultimately cost more or create more problems in the end.

The outsourcing of evidence-based work to consultants has not only privatised the policy system but fundamentally led to a deskilling of policy teams. They don't know how to evidence policies, and they have become passive. It also has made the work less interesting. But how would we do it with teams of 5 or less in a team? These consultancy teams have enormous resources, whereas in LPA, you are lucky if your council didn't cut the GIS team or resources in austerity cuts, or you got someone that has self-taught themselves GIS.

It's also much harder to fund policy teams. Time and time again, I have seen the policy budget get used to pick up the slack for the department or found it is not ring-fenced. It's disheartening, as it feels like Local Plans are undervalued, in addition to being underfunded and under-resourced. We don't have opportunities to fund work through PPAs. None of the councils i have worked for charge out policy advice at pre-app. In this era of self-funding, planning policy quite frankly is screwed. . Finally, when there are redundancies, the policy team are first to be cut because of this lack of funding.

I agree with all the issues around recruiting planners. There aren't enough, and the system is broken where it's easier to give money to contractors and consultants than perm staff. I left a council job after i found out how much they were going to pay a contractor to do a job I had been doing well on top of my regular local plan work. Or if the Local Plan has just been adopted, consider yourself and your team redundant as the job is done.

Why would you stay? I am not. I am leaving local government.

Submission 13

Personal views of Ben Woolnough – Planning Manager at East Suffolk Council

Like many others contributing to this blog, the past few years have been harder for Planning Officers than ever before, especially for officers of all levels (including support teams) involved in the delivery of Development Management. Application numbers have increased by over 20% in the past year, complexity has increased, and customer demands grow every year. Planning remains an attractive profession to join and the perception of working for Local Authorities is improving.

The good

On a positive note, at East Suffolk I see this situation no different to LPAs anywhere else in the country and by all means we have been open and honest about challenges (see our latest newsletter: https://www.eastsuffolk.gov.uk/assets/Planning/Planning-and-Building-Control-Newsletter/11-Covid-Planning-Newsletter-November-2021.pdf ) but we do approach our planning challenges with a glass half-full view. Thankfully due to two up-to-date Local Plans in place, multiple current SPD consultations and some well resourced (though never full enough) teams we are able to maintain better morale than unfortunately some others suffer from. We have huge challenges in our District such as 25% of the future UK electricity being produced or passing through East Suffolk via Sizewell C and offshore wind and that in itself is helping us to bolster the service. Our members recognise the importance and demands of planning and have committed to investment and expansion. We have over a dozen officers currently studying Town Planning degrees and half of those are on the RTPI apprenticeship route. This is allowing us to grow our own which is vitally important when 50% of your catchment area for recruitment is in the North Sea! Last year we had 75 applicants for four graduate positions, we took a huge amount of our time to interview 35 very eager, intelligent and driven applicants. I would have happily employed 20 of them. As with everyone, we struggle to recruit, especially to more senior roles. We are all on a merry-go-round with other LPAs in officer recruitment and it is very rare that we are able to attract staff from the private sector. Our benefits no longer stack up and salaries cannot compete. But we can offer an all-round high quality planning culture and huge experience opportunities and that’s what we have to rely on to sell ourselves. We are expanding our Specialist Services Team by 40% to cover greater design and environmental expectations and to secure high quality outcomes. We will soon be one of the few LPA’s to have three ecologists where many have none. This is not intended to be a sales pitch for East Suffolk Planning but a realistic view on what can be achieved with strong and long established leadership, top table planning input and strong political recognition for the Council’s planning function. It underpins the Council wide Strategic Plan, our significant growth ambitions and the environmental importance of our coastal communities and landcape. It is this which does build pride in our work and for some, this helps us get through the exhausting front line delivery of this vital service.

The bad

I reflect on my own 15 year career span in Development Management across three LPAs where I have always been very busy but the progression from the more relaxed and manageable pace of letter-led communication to almost entirely email-led over that time stands out. This is progress and is great in many respects but it’s led to communication fatigue with officers more accessible and accountable than ever before and expectations to respond continuously, swiftly and in detail are much higher. This is set against complaints of officers not answering phones and not being available in person but it is the heavy demands of email led planning which have taken those away, not the desires of Councils or Officers and not the amount of officers within each LPA. Of course this isn’t unique to local government or planning but DM planners do need to be personable people and many really value their direct customer relations and engagement with agents and architects, but it is so compromised. In recent years Teams has added to this further on top of widespread 7am-midnight working culture and general over-working. From my perspective, someone needs to introduce a law on Cc’ing! My inbox regularly and unsustainably exceeds 150 emails in a day and agents and applicants find it far to easy to try to reach the attention of managers before communicating through the team.

The ugly

I’m proud that we have a team that really do care. It hurts us all to see complaints, the persistent nagging, false accusations of wrong doing, the often toxic ‘facebook-community group’ influence on planning consultations, increasingly personal accusations against officers, the excessive expectations of speed of communication from some agents and applicants - when we are all genuinely trying our best. A recent peer review of our Complaints process found that only 0.8% of complaints against DM are upheld yet I spend 20% of my time responding to complaints which are largely expansions on past objections or applicant/agent grievances which should instead be dealt with through appeals. Don’t get me started on the hugely time consuming FOI requests from armchair detectives thinking they can uncover some wrong doing or conspiracy! We aren’t perfect but we have also become extremely efficient in covering a huge amount of work, particularly through remote working and without the in person support of others around us.

How to make things easier and more enjoyable?

The mentioned investment in our service will make life easier and more enjoyable for officers. Having a strong team of specialist officers to inspire and upskill planners will be great and it is often the work we do with Conservation, Design, Landscape and Ecology officers which spark that joy in our jobs as planners. Without that base of the team you really can lose the soul of the planning service and I know that is lacking elsewhere. Next year I’m planning to strip back some of the reporting expectations on cases as this has become a significant burden on officer time. When I was a Planning Assistant I could take 10 files from my drawer and get them all issued in an afternoon, now our Planning Assistants are lucky if they can achieve 2 or 3 decisions. I think all Councils, often through threat of challenge and greater public scrutiny, have evolved over the last 15 years or so from concise but clear reports and officer notes to an expectation of essay length delegated reports. Nothing has changed in the decision making expectations of householder applications in 15 years. It used to involve a front page site notes, suitable tick boxes, policy references and a bespoke reason for approval. I think we feel there is a need to prove our worth in what we write rather than what we achieve and negotiate and that unfortunately has caused both officers and agents to become less invested in real planning, more process orientated and less proud of their work.

Submission 14

I am a policy planner, with 5 years of experience as a civil servant sandwiched between 10 years working in local government.

I loved my time as a civil servant, working with committed public servants who approached problems with enthusiasm and creativity. I enjoyed coming up with solutions to address real issues that were being flagged to Government by front line planners.

But during my time as a civil servant, I was also painfully aware of my own experiences in local government and the knowledge that an idea can look great on paper and work in theory, but will fail when it comes to implementation.

In the mid-2000s planning bore the brunt of the ‘bonfire of quangos’ and the dismantling of strategic planning. And now we are seeing the long-term results. Planners are not given the space, time or freedom to think, learn, explore, understand and reflect.

My fellow Assessors marking the APC will be familiar with submissions for RTPI membership where it is clear the applicant has had little opportunity to grow into a competent and reflective practitioner. Applicants who have spent their early career robotically following checklists and completing forms unsurprisingly find it impossible to demonstrate the high standards that we rightly require of planning professionals.

Outsourcing the most meaningful and fulfilling work to better-paid consultants means that staff cannot learn or progress through interesting project work. Getting rid of experienced mentors through voluntary early retirement, slashing training budgets and stifling learning and progression is a sure fire way of demoralising staff and encouraging them to leave for better paid jobs in other sectors.

A highly complex and politicised system makes it impossible to deliver a local plan. The system is set-up as a battleground between vested interests. Where is the scope for pragmatism and compromise? I was taught at University that a key skill for planners is mediation and resolution. In reality it feels more like fire-fighting and self-preservation. There is no time to present alternative views, let alone listen to a range of perspectives.

The previous submissions are brutally honest and depressing to read. Many of the solutions I designed in my time as a civil servant will never work in practice because the people expected to deliver them are undervalued, inexperienced, belittled, demonised, harassed, demoralised, exhausted and burnt-out.

However, when I read the previous submissions from my peers I am also reminded why I chose this profession and sector in the first place. Public policy, and local authority planning, is still a fundamentally good, virtuous and worthwhile vocation. There are many, many brilliant local authority officers who are committed, hardworking and inspiring; who I am proud to be working alongside.

We need to remember why we chose planning in the first place and not lose sight of the positive changes we know that planning can bring when done right.

Submission 15

I’ve been in DM for 15yrs, fresh out of uni and full of ambition to help shape better environments. For the first 10 or so years that’s what it felt I was doing. I was part of a small, if not well-resourced dept, but a good team and we achieved a great deal and had corporate and political support for our work. We were never idle but there were stressful periods, but that’s what they were – periods. We had time to breathe and blink and think about what we were doing. I felt valued and because we were never that well resourced, that set me up well to deal with curveballs as we seemed to face them most weeks anyway.

Scroll forward 10yrs into job 2. I’m in a much better equipped team and less chaos ensued as a result. I’m a square peg in a round hole in this rather cliqued team which didn’t help, but even casting that aside, workloads were manageable probably two thirds of the time. There was more political distance between Cllrs and Officers than in job 1, but I never felt like we were being chastised by the public or local politicians per se. There’s obviously the odd few customers who you’ll never please but that’s par for the course and sometimes it can be quite amusing to respond to those ones.

Relaxation of PD rights was becoming a problem though, and agents were increasingly and smugly waving the GDPO at us as, citing it as their perceived fallback position to bully us into allowing development of obvious appalling quality.

Two years later and onto job 3 (my current job), which I’ve been in for 4yrs now. Government have continued to turn the screw with further PD relaxations which allow even more dreadful development, whilst at the same time upping the ante in successive versions of the NPPF and other national guidance to promote delivery and good quality development, which the major housebuilders in particular consistently seem to ignore as they have standard housetypes and layouts from the 90s to flog. More often than not it now feels like I’m resisting decline rather than enabling improvement.

Thankfully this time I’d joined (and remain in) a fantastic team, but this was initially offset against weak corporate leadership which allowed Members to run riot against Officers. Committees weren’t respectful. It was the Cllrs’ opportunity to belittle us in public. There may be an age element to this as we are a relatively young team, but those in more senior positions such as myself all have 10-15yrs experience. We were not, and are not rookies, but certain Cllrs seemed to revel in treating us like bad children, and wanted their Officers to be ‘yes men’. The footage will be there on YouTube.

This us/them mentality was bad enough, but workloads have consistently increased during this time to the point where it is now the norm, and that was the case even before the pandemic. With the onset of the pandemic, the switch to home-working split up our lovely team. It is nowhere near the same on MS Teams. We miss each other and although we have adjusted to working from home, it isn’t as productive as being in the office at least some of the time. Some things take longer to do and more junior officers' learning has been stunted. They aren’t benefiting from learning by hearing other conversations in the office and are having to self-teach in between structured catchup sessions. It sucks.

As has been mentioned in other submissions, with furlough and more people working at home, the keyboard Karens and Kevins of this world have been rife in the last couple of years, complaining about all and sundry. Increasingly they’re also going to the MP as well, thus doubling up on our work, and no doubt deluging their inboxes as well. Often MP complaints are just because someone has had the audacity to make a planning application us. I mean, how very dare they!? A good 20% or so of my working week is now wasted, and I do mean wasted, on complaints, not helped because a new management structure (we’ve now amalgamated into a unitary) punts these complaints down to officer level, whereas previously they would have been triaged by the Chief’s PA. Previously unfilled posts somehow seem to have been deleted as part of the merge, so they won’t be filled because they apparently don’t exist any more. Wonderful.

Many agents still seem to act like it’s 2006 and aren’t managing their clients expectations, then play pantomime email tennis with us to show their client everything is our fault, whilst privately acknowledging to us that they understand our pressures and that it is the same everywhere – which it seems to be from reading the other submissions.

The political side of things has at least been better since the merge, but sadly the sheer volume of work, an increasingly outraged, complaining and impatient public, a new management structure which isn’t yet established enough to be effective, vastly under-resourced consultees, and continued separation from each other has left many of us close to breaking point. A good few of us have already had a few close calls and been a hair’s breadth away from being signed off with stress or just throwing in the towel. I think many of us are in the same boat; we care deeply about what we do and don’t want to be the first domino to fall because we know it’ll set off a chain reaction, and we don’t want to let our team down. We’re bloody knackered though and there doesn’t appear to be much, if any hope on the horizon, locally or nationally. I know we’re meant to seek solutions to problems as planners, but unless someone wants to give us the Treasury’s purse strings or this week’s Planning Minister’s powers, we are limited in what we can do internally.

I think of students now, and all the debt they face being saddled with vs when I went to uni, when fees were considerably lower. Is a planning career and the modest income worth all that debt? Honestly? I’d tell my 18year old self to look elsewhere. Planning for me was a hobby which became a career and I still love what it can achieve, but it has to be sustainable. I’d have to look my younger self in the eye and crush their dreams by saying to do something else.

How much does a lorry driver make these days? I’m genuinely now at the point of considering a career change before I die at my home office desk. I would like to reach my 50th, and ideally in one piece.

Submission 16

As someone who has worked in the public sector since 2009, a large part of it in DM planning; I have noticed that highly capable people go in to planning, get quickly promoted, then get overwhelmed and switch to the private sector or other careers. They are on a conveyor belt to burn out. Few stick the course. This is partly a consequence of local authority reorganisations and restructures, largely a post 2010 phenomenon; experienced managers are pushed out, because they are seen as obstructive; then new people promoted who find that they cannot cope. The problem is often with local government as an employer, it has become deeply unstable.

For the system to work you need experienced managers who know DM really well; so this is normally 10-15 years experience. They must be well supported and trusted by both their team (to make the right call etc) and senior management within Councils. If you want to build up capacity at this level, then you need to create both stable employment conditions in local government; and also significantly increase the salary of managers to incentivise them to stick the course. At present, the wages of local authority planning managers are not much higher than senior officers; and you can earn much more by contracting, so why would you want to become a manager?

Submission 17

We are a small local plans team of 4 and two of those are not full time. We have been working so hard and producing documents for so long its not just the hours – my staff in the last year have all done 450 extra unpaid hours and produced 3,00 pages of work and I have told them to stop doing that as we will burn out. When people leave there is pressure to get someone in on reduced hours and there are no plans to expand. No-one has had time off for stress but they have been suffering physically from it. I put my staff first and it is only by working normally and things not getting done that anything will change.

Submission 18

I want to consider issues of abuse and aggression, networking and conferences along with recruitment and retention.

Abuse and aggression

Based on personal experiences, the planning system can be a release valve for pent up passions and frustrations about local issues and unfortunately, this can turn into aggression and abuse. I remember attending a workshop regarding a neighbourhood plan in my home town and on the table I was at, a Planning Aid volunteer was reduced to tears after discussions between business owners and residents got quite heated. As a Policy Planner who in my former role was involved with a controversial Joint DPD involving Green Belt release, I’ve also copped my fair share of aggressive and abusive behaviour including being called ‘a waste of time’ and an ‘office junior’ which was utterly demoralising all because we didn’t have all the answers on the proposed Green Belt releases (the DPD was only at the Reg 18 stage).

I appreciate that people may not like planning proposals and/or they want to vent their frustrations about how a place has been run and that their right to do so is an important democratic right, but should that right come with a responsibility to not be aggressive or abusive towards the LPA? I also wonder whether there need to be stronger deterrents in place against abusive and aggressive behaviour towards Planning Officers.

Networking and conferences

I think that the following paragraph in Catriona's article is absolutely spot on:

But a potentially significant factor is the frequent lack of external training and development opportunities offered to planners within local authorities. Very few have the opportunity to attend conferences and learn from peers across the profession about how they are doing things. And that takes us right back to resources. If the government, the development industry and local communities want a world class planning service that can do everything that is expected of it, it needs to be resourced properly and no amount of simplifying it or digitising it will deliver this.

Having attended several Young Planners Conferences in the past few years, it can feel like the private sector is overrepresented whilst young local government planners are badly underrepresented. Whilst I imagine the large consultancies can afford to subsidise large groups of 10, if not more employees to attend the conferences, most local authority planners probably have to pay for their tickets, accommodation, travel and entertainment from their own pocket and this can be a good £200-£300, if not more and this could be a significant barrier for LPA planners wanting to develop their planning knowledge.

When it comes to other CPD, social and networking events, if you're a planning officer working in a remote rural district like Eden in Cumbria or Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, I imagine the logistics of getting to Leeds or Manchester for a CPD course starting at 9am or home from an RTPI social in the evening can be very difficult, if not impossible. I therefore think that as well as more resourcing, more could perhaps be done to make these CPD and social opportunities more affordable and accessible to prospective attendees e.g. holding more Regional CPD events and YP socials away from large cities and offering hybrid in-person/virtual CPD events for planners in remote areas.

Recruitment and retention

I imagine that LPAs trying to compete with the likes of Savills and CBRE for planning staff is like Macclesfield Town and Port Vale trying to compete with Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain for players. If you are a planning graduate, a role at a consultancy in a large city offering a starting salary of £25k, work on large housing schemes from Day 1 in the post, a company car, guarantees of mentor support for your APC and financial support for your RTPI membership fees, days out to Twickenham and Old Trafford and promotion every 2/3 years is going to be a no brainer in terms of personal and professional development compared with working at the LPA in your home town who can only offer a starting salary of £20k, a workload limited to householder and change of use applications, petrol money for site visits and promotions that depend on other officers resigning or retiring. I imagine that if you ran an opinion poll of where planning students want to go and work after graduation, the overwhelming majority would say they want to work in the private sector. Regarding the point in Submission 14 about young LPA Planners getting their APCs knocked back - is there any enhanced support that PAS and the RTPI can offer to LPAs so that they can help planning staff meet the requirements of the APC process and if not, could they do so?

I remember at a PAS event a few years ago, there was a delegate from a rural district adjacent to a National Park saying that he was struggling to fill posts despite being the LPA being located close to some of the most scenic areas of England. I do wonder whether the issues faced by LPAs in terms of recruitment and retention is a symptom of a wider social issue, namely the brain drain whereby young graduates are relocating to large cities at the expense of more rural and provincial areas.

I therefore think the following actions could be taken to improve recruitment and retention of LPA planning staff:

1) Greater protection and stronger deterrents against abusive and aggressive behaviour for LPA planners.

2) To support the personal and professional development of LPA officers, socials, CPD events and conferences should be made more accessible and/or affordable for LPAs.

3) There needs to be a look at how we can make LPAs a more attractive career path for planners, especially young graduates just coming out of university e.g. giving them greater clarity and certainty over career progression and tailoring their work programmes to give them their best shot at passing the APC.

That said, despite the travails of working in local government, I have worked in LPAs with nice towns and stunning countryside, I have met some great people, worked on some really interesting projects, the good times drown out the bad times and I love the sense of attachment you get to the places you work. The likes of Savills and WSP are going to need a lot more than corporate hospitality at sports events, RTPI subs and BUPA healthcare if they want to tempt me away from local government…

Submission 19

Working for the Planning Department in a decent sized local authority, I guess my perspective is not entirely representative, but I thought it was worth adding into the mix. Most of the time, we get reasonable support from our senior politicians in terms of supporting our work and trying to ensure we have adequate resources. It's not perfect but we do benefit from economies of scale and that means we can accommodate bigger teams, including specialists. When you have multiple landscape architects and ecologists in the same department you inevitable get comments back quicker and can potentially get them at a meeting or site visit. Everyone benefits, not least the specialists who can bounce ideas of each other and improve how they work over time. Bigger teams also mean more opportunities for internal promotion and make internal CPD and social activity easier.

As others have already said, home working has been a bit of a disaster for collaborative working in the office, such as planning officers being able to informally discuss tricky cases, although it has clearly made external meetings (via Zoom etc) more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Colleagues with small children had a horrendous time with home working during the lockdowns and the mental health harm from isolation for others has been profound, but these are not factors unique to LPAs. More relevant to planning is the increased workload of enforcement cases from people spending more time looking out of the windows at home and the backlog with the courts delaying moving cases on.

Are there far too many duff applications submitted? Of course, but that's not new and is inevitable in a system where anyone can apply. Online guidance could be better at a national level and our local work on this, whether that be training events or documents, helps to some extent, but here are a critical mass of planning agents and members of the public who just aren't interested. Aspects of the system remain hellishly complicated (often because the real world is complicated) and more standard guidance across different local authorities remains an obvious improvement. Others have raised some of the systemic issues with Planning Policy, but these are sadly longstanding ones in general. Clearly a more dynamic policy function that included urban design staffing and more immediate outputs like masterplans and design codes could be a good way to augment this.

Ultimately though the vast majority of the department remain committed to helping people ('public service') and get a kick out of good development being delivered. NIMBYs are a background irritation, but their arguments are frequently so ludicrous that they provide some much needed entertainment when not wasting time. Conversely, so much time is wasted through applicant's who should know better proposing things we could never approve. For example, if there is a heritage asset on the front of a site we are obviously going to expect it to be retained so design to the context and cut out the pointless stages of us saying 'no' before the scheme is redesigned anyway. Collaborative planning is key and we can all do better on that front, so there's a New Year's resolution to end on.

Submission 20

“There are two people you need to worry about. The people ‘out there’ and the people ‘in here’.”

This is a quote verbatim from one line manager to me in my first day in post. Words I will never forget.

Another unforgettable first day quote from a notorious member of middle management was

‘Do you know what Stockholm syndrome is… you’ll grow to like me’.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me in the public sector was not the public, it was the extra pressure put on planners through some (not all I must stress) power tripping middle management; those who continually sent officer reports back, rewritten in red pen, adding little or no value – or on some occasions, just making the reports inaccurate or incorrect.

It was common practice in some authorities for middle management to re-correct their own corrections, often adding months onto the process. One savvy planner used to save the hard copies, collecting up to 7 or 8 sets of ‘revisions’ or, corrections of correction of corrections…

On top of this, the planner’s hard negotiated design changes were often binned and their intended decision (approval) reversed, resulting in even more complaints from the public and agents alike.

The planner would then be tasked with writing a response to the complaint -unable to detail the real reason for the delay or why there had been such a dramatic u turn. This response would then be proofed and checked by the middle management, who were regularly, the cause of the issue.

I watched many junior members simply become broken by their line managers, devoid of any confidence and unable to make any decisions, having merely morphed into a messenger for their superior. Long term sick leave, due to stress, was common place.

I am comfortably in private practice now, and often read claims of planning departments being under-resourced. Whilst this cannot be denied, I firmly believe there is a strong correlation between those complaining over cut backs, and those with the ‘red pen’ culture.

Last week I bumped into a young, and broken, planning officer who showed me a screen shot of an email from middle management questioning, in great patronising detail, the planner’s accidental misplacement of a semi colon either inside or outside a bracket. Yes, a semi colon, on the wrong side of the bracket.

Submission 21

There are certainly issues for policy officers in LAs too! We are suffering the same recruitment issues as our DM colleagues and suffer the same high workload and increasing pressure from all directions which essentially makes my job feel like I’m constantly firefighting. Officers are struggling to get Local Plans through the examination process, while helping to deliver neighbourhood plans, collect data for housing land supply and AMRs, provide policy responses to our DM colleagues and are having an increasing involvement with planning appeals and inquiries. As someone else also pointed out, out sourcing to the private sector for evidence base documents and the ‘fun’ projects such as Masterplanning is a massive downside, but we simply don’t have the time to work on these while trying to handle everything else and meet the deadlines in order to get the plan over the line.

IT and general wellbeing support at the start of the pandemic was simply shocking. I seriously considered leaving local authority based on this alone. I was not given a laptop (let alone a keyboard, mouse, screen riser or second screen) until 6 months into the pandemic… which I had to fight for anyway. When my personal laptop finally stopped working completely that was the point I was finally given a laptop by my employer. While my policy colleagues and others within the LA were not given a laptop and basic IT equipment until October 2020, after months on end of ‘it’s coming next week’. To this day I’m still waiting to be issued a work mobile phone. I have to divert my work number to my personal mobile and remember to not reject calls as this will go straight through to my personal answer phone and having to withhold my number every time I make a work call. It’s a good job phone contracts all have free minutes these days!

I’m an active member of the RTPI and Young Planners, there are so many benefits of being involved within the profession, outside of my LA this has shaped the planner I am today. This is now coming at my own expense, as I have progressed professionally and my work load continues to increase now including management responsibility, my ability to volunteer at the RTPI is getting further and further stretched.


Comments

  1. As an ex DC officer at a local authority, I have every sympathy with planning officers at LPA's currently. When I left 8/9 years ago, things were not great, it sounds like they have got worse, certainly on the resourcing side.

    That said, this blog just highlights another issue for me with the planning system that doesn't seem to be being addressed and that is the views between, and the distrust between, public and private sector planners.

    When I was at an LPA, we referred to the private sector as the 'dark side'. The negative attitude towards the private sector was such that you almost looked at an application from the outset with a view of 'what are they trying to get away with?'. It was very negative. I don't find that so much in the private sector, although obviously there are frustrations.

    I believe that some of the examples highlight how this distrust / attitude is pervading their view of their own job, people are 'complaining' 'moaning' and agents are 'demanding', its not very objective. Planning is emotive and people are entitled to have their say.

    That aside, I think the last submission sums up the problem perfectly.

    'Relaxation of PD rights was becoming a problem though, and agents were increasingly and smugly waving the GDPO at us as, citing it as their perceived fallback position to bully us into allowing development of obvious appalling quality'.

    We all work within the same legislative framework, PD has always been a consideration in determining planning applications and that is no different today. This framework comes from Central Government, why not aim the anger at Central Government rather than the agent?

    Interpreting the rules that are laid out and working within those correctly does not make an agent 'smug' or 'bullying. I do not agree with Class E of the UCO for example, but my job and that of the LPA is to understand what ramifications it has and then submit / determine applications accordingly. If the system isn't delivering decent development, then it needs to be kicked back up to Central Government to resolve.

    It is my experience also that LPA's can, on occasion, be considerably unreasonable in their approach and given they hold all the power ultimately, they could easily be described as acting like playground bullies. There can be no rhyme or reason, but because they hold the power, you are going to do it their way. It just a matter of perspective and perhaps neither is quite reasonable.

    I also think that some of what is said above is stemming from this inherent belief that working for a public sector is somehow more virtuous. I can only speak for myself but, when I was at an LPA, I was dealing with air conditioning units, shopfronts, adverts, a few residential schemes etc. Since I joined the private sector, I have dealt with hospital extensions, schools, housing developments, etc. I have done applications for free for my local school (as signed off by my director). The idea that the private sector is less virtuous is not necessarily true. Also, most of the people I have worked with have come from a public sector background.

    I want to be absolutely clear, I loved my time at an LPA, there is no better place to learn and the people I worked with were great. Also, some of the case officers I have dealt with recently have been superb (Lambeth and Southwark in particular), they were professional, approachable and knowledgeable, I could not have asked for a better service.

    That said the distrust and negativity in these examples towards basically anyone involved in the planning process (other than anyone from a public body obviously) is clear to see and sad to see. Its not objective, its not reasonable and unfortunately, until people step over and see it from the other side, I don't think they will ever appreciate it.

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