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.
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 …..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.