Time for a change?

Excessive hours, low pay, too much paperwork and a target culture are promoting a number of planners to assess alternative career options, warns Bryan Johnston.


For a profession that has been in the grip of a recruitment crisis for a decade, it is disappointing to find that an increasing number of planners are sufficiently fed up with pay and conditions to be considering a career switch.

Across the board, 18 per cent of male and female planners alike say they are considering a move outside planning or related work during the course of this year. The equivalent figure from our last survey in 1999 was 13 per cent. The proportion of female planners considering a move has not changed over the past eight years, but for men it has jumped by 50 per cent.

Around one in six prospective departures is down to imminent retirement. Beyond that, dissatisfaction with the nature of the job is cited as a reason by 55 per cent of planners contemplating a move, closely followed by poor pay packages, bureaucracy and excessive workloads. One in six complains of work-related stress or illness.

The negative attitude of senior management, lack of tangible reward for attaining a very good planning delivery grant, blanket introduction of new software and a target-driven culture are cited as the main bugbears by a development control officer in the South West, the region with the highest proportion of planners looking at alternative employment.

Another South West development controller has cut down on overtime after six months off with a stress-related illness caused largely by lack of staff resources: "My authority has learnt its lesson and doubled its planning officer establishment. How long this will persist depends on staff retention. High house prices are the main issue in this region and there is no salary weighting to reflect this, unlike in the South East."

Women appear slightly more likely than men to be pushed towards the door by excessive workloads but noticeably less disconcerted by pay or bureaucracy. About a quarter of all planners - and 29 per cent of women - are motivated by lifestyle choice or family circumstances. For some, "lifestyle choice" is a misnomer. One former senior planner on £30,000 a year is resigned to looking for whatever work she can find locally - most likely in a shop - that offers the flexibility to cope with two young children.

A county council principal planner in southern England highlights the difficulties facing women working part time for family reasons. "I have no prospects whatsoever," she says following a job evaluation that put her at the top of a salary band starting at £26,500. "I am considering going freelance or starting out as a property developer. I may as well use my skills for my own benefit."

Apart from the pre-retirement age bands, planners in their late 30s and early 40s are the most likely to be considering a move away from planning. The lowest rate is among those who have hung on beyond 60. If the aspirations of the one in five planners aged between 35 and 50 looking at ways out were to be realised, the profession would lose a crucial pool of experience and expertise.

Disillusion is particularly rife in local government, where the proportion considering a career move within a year has climbed from 14 to 23 per cent since 1999. Over the same period, the nine per cent rate for planning consultants has not changed. Planners working for other private firms and central government departments or agencies are least likely to be thinking of a career change.

"Difficulties finding staff, increasing complexity, tighter targets and bureaucracy make the local authority profession less and less attractive as a career," says a south coast development control officer. "Attacks on the local government pension scheme, low pay awards and little recognition from employers lead me to question anyone considering this as a career move."

A West Country policy officer in his 50s adds: "Although I really enjoy living in this part of the country, the low remuneration compared with my peers has always made me fume. The added bureaucracy of the planning reforms and local authority employers' blithe disregard of the need for a profound culture change has been the last straw that will persuade me to move out of planning-related work."

Others are riled by the myth that council planners have an easy ride. One planner with experience on both sides of the fence says he works just as hard for his local authority as he ever did for the private sector. "Pay is an issue and I may consequently seek to leave planning. My ethics lie with the public sector but the remuneration does not match my needs as the cost of living is so high."

Staff caught up in the fast-changing development plans system are appreciably more likely to be considering leaving planning than their development control colleagues. A planning policy officer in a Welsh authority suggests one reason why: "Despite the development plan being one of the four key statutory plans the council has to produce it has little corporate support, which can affect morale."

Yet the local government group most likely to be contemplating a change of direction work in regeneration and economic development, even though they are twice as likely as planning colleagues to be earning more than £35,000 a year. One respondent who took up an economic development post last year admits: "If I were to move back into mainstream planning I would be unable to get a job at a similarly remunerative level."

Low pay is cited as a grievance by half the planners considering moving on. It is hardly surprising that almost a third of the put-upon bunch earning less than £15,000 annually are looking at other career paths. But around one in five planners earning £25,000 to £30,000 a year are looking for other prospects. The same applies to senior managers on £40,000 to £45,000 a year.

"Pay is very poor given the responsibilities and effort that the job requires compared to other professions," laments a senior planning officer in the North West in his 30s. "I am looking for opportunities outside the planning profession that give a more appropriate level of pay to the workload. I cannot see any change in the pay structures and need to get out before it is too late."

When it comes to staff responsibility, around 30 per cent of planners managing sizeable sections of 11 to 15 staff are thinking of changing career soon, almost double the rate for those with no managerial role. Departmental heads and other top managers are far more contented. Only a handful of those leading teams of 30 or more staff would consider dropping out this year.

Excessive workloads are a grievance for 44 per cent of planners contemplating leaving the profession. A quarter of those planners who feel obliged to put in 11 to 15 hours overtime in a typical week have had enough. Yet the hardest workers are the happiest. Only 11 per cent of those doing 15 hours upwards are considering a change, even though many must be breaching EU rules.

"Public sector pay has fallen behind that of the private sector and all the good planners have left for the private sector," says one council planner. "My council's failure to tackle to this has made working for the authority a poor choice with so many overworked and demotivated colleagues. There is little pride in a job that is now focused on ticking boxes."

Bureaucracy is a major grievance. "My employer has a misplaced focus on customer delivery instead of improving the well-being of the community," complains one council staffer. "My professional ethos is being undermined by inappropriate checklist and performance procedures. I am looking for a job where I can operate as a planner."

A Welsh policy officer with more than 30 years' experience adds: "The never-ending navel-gazing bureaucracy relating to performance management, risk assessment, quality assurance and targets is diverting staff time and resources away from front-line service delivery to the detriment of those citizens we are supposed to be serving. It is frustrating and has a negative effect on morale."

Such tales of woe belie the fact that more than 80 per cent of planners are content with their lot. "I have found the profession to be very rewarding," says a South East planning policy officer. "My employer has offered me a good wage, numerous benefits including eligibility for key worker housing and covered the cost of my day release planning MA. I am glad I quit architecture."

A senior planner in his 20s from Leeds derives huge job satisfaction from his post. "If I was motivated by money alone I would have gone into investment banking," he reflects. "I love working as a planner and I am proud to be a planner. I am very satisfied with my salary and more importantly with my work."

"The planning profession should be seen as an exciting one to enter," maintains one planner who gained RTPI membership last year. "The sheer variety of jobs open to planning graduates needs to be emphasised."


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