The RTPI has revealed that only 43 per cent of its members now work in local authorities, down from 54 per cent eight years ago. It wants to know what has caused this decline.
On the face of it, the institute is right to be concerned. Planning is or should be essentially a public service, balancing priorities for the wider social benefit. However, a major problem in distinguishing public and private sector planning is that much of the latter's work relies on a public sector brief, through contracts reflecting the privatisation ethos of the times.
This may be bad for local government but should not involve compromised planning practice. Even the familiar circumstance of the planning consultancy doing its partisan best for a developer client is arguably the equivalent of the lawyer taking a case in the certain knowledge of being opposed by a fellow legal professional.
A planner with the legitimate ambition to be involved in building something or making a place, in contrast to the equally important planning functions of creating paper plans and judging others' proposals, has no reason to apologise. Plans that are never realised serve no-one.
In the context of two decades of growth in the planning profession, only detailed study will reveal whether large numbers of planners are permanently deserting the public sector or whether the private sector isn't just attracting growing numbers at or near the beginning of their careers.
The National Planning Forum recently heard how the continuing growth in recruits to the profession reflects about 3,500 students at 28 universities on more than 100 initial training courses. But it also mulled over the impact of the target culture in the public sector as a disincentive to local authority service, without acknowledging that private sector profit remains the longest established target of all.
Anecdotal evidence from local authority employees about the declining status of planning and diminishing job satisfaction and pay are alarming. Last month, the institute found itself having to correct housing and planning minister Caroline Flint's misapprehension that local authority planning services can get by without a professional chief officer and that councillors do not need training in the subject.
Flint had the grace to partially correct her gaffe a few days later, but doubts remain about whether government ministers have yet registered how significant planning issues and their resolution are to local political sentiment. Perhaps this week's agonising over the Planning Bill will have disabused them.
- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.