The planning function has been relegated to lower positions in the corporate structure of local authorities across the UK, a new survey by the RTPI has revealed.
The study finds that the head of planning is a member of the top management team in only 17% of councils in the UK despite the fact that planning is, like social services and education, a statutory function.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that councillors are more likely to respect planning advice from a senior officer from a chief executive’s team. However, the vast majority of councils (83%) put planning two or three tiers down from the chief executive, diluting its importance as a strategic corporate function that helps councils tackle social, economic and environmental challenges.
Planning’s effectiveness is also adversely impacted by decisions made in isolation from other policy areas, the RTPI says.
Victoria Hills, RTPI Chief Executive, said, “Planning is a powerful lever to deliver almost all areas of focus within an authority’s corporate strategy. We urge more council chief executives and portfolio holders to recognise this and put in the right structure so that leaders can make major decisions – be they about education, health or social care – with full view and proper debate of their spatial dimensions, such as housing, transport, green spaces, energy and waste infrastructure.
“Amid the challenges of Brexit and tight resources, it is all the more important that councils ensure planners are at the heart of corporate decision-making so that their effectiveness to join the dots across complex spending decisions can be maximised.
“All too often we see a lack of joined-thinking, with investment decisions being made without a holistic perspective that could give good growth outcomes.”
However, councillors have hit back at the study, claiming that planning is a priority but departments are being starved of vital funds.
Cllr Martin Tett, LGA Housing spokesman, said, “Councils understand the importance of planning for local communities and residents – It’s essential that communities are able to have oversight over homes and environments in their local area.
“Planning is not a barrier to housebuilding – councils approve nine out of 10 applications and are determined to make sure that their residents can access affordable housing. However, with councils facing an overall funding shortfall in excess of £5 billion by 2020, it’s essential that the Government adequately resources council planning departments, so that they can cover the cost of processing applications.
“Ultimately, we need to move towards locally set planning fees. Councils are the custodians of their communities and understand the environmental and housing needs of their local areas best, so they should be able to set fees locally in line with the needs of their communities.”
The RTPI research looked at the management structure of 212 local authorities in London, SE England, NW England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The head of planning is absent from the top table in 77% of councils in Wales and 94% of councils in Scotland. In London, NW and SE, the corresponding figures are 86%, 90% and 78%.
By contrast, planners have the highest status in Ireland – 78% of councils there have head of planning reporting directly to the chief executive.