The government has provided some promising solutions to the Commons communities and local government select committee's report on labour shortages in the planning sector.
In last month's response to the MPs, the DCLG admits to faults over its impositions on planners and its failure to properly monitor Sir John Egan's 2004 review of skills. But with recent news of planning job cuts at Bournemouth and potential losses in Leicester, at a time when shortfalls are already causing problems, the task looks yet more daunting.
The committee's conclusions last summer gave a damning assessment of efforts to tackle shortages of planners. Despite being identified as long ago as the late 1990s the position has continued to deteriorate, the MPs found (Planning, 25 July 2008, p1).
Among their recommendations was a call for a sectoral skills council for planners, a study of salary levels and an annual survey of planner numbers. The committee also pushed ministers to make the chief planning officer a statutorily protected senior local government official.
While the DCLG has not accepted the MPs' advice wholesale, it has made a firm pledge to take action. It admits that progress on culture change has been slow, adding: "We agree with the committee that we need to do more to raise the profile of planning in local government and the population as a whole."
The MPs advised the DCLG to raise planning's status by working with professional bodies to promote it as a career in schools or mount a national advertising campaign similar to that for teachers. Its response promises to "take every opportunity to play our part in emphasising the importance of planning" through publications, events and speeches by ministers and senior officials. It is also open to the idea of an advertising campaign for planners if it can be shown to be value for money.
But on a more committed note, it says it will work with the Improvement and Development Agency and the RTPI to develop recruitment literature and marketing strategies to increase the awareness and appeal of public sector careers to planning students. It also wants to encourage local authorities to engage with the universities to promote planning as a career option.
It intends to increase the number of bursaries from September and pledges to review, with the RTPI, the take-up of courses to see whether anything more needs to be done to encourage mid-career entrants to planning from other professions.
However, the idea of a sectoral skills council for planning has been dismissed. The government claims that setting this up through the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) is unnecessary because Asset Skills already covers the profession.
The Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC), which also covers planning and now comes under the HCA, also continues to have a role. The academy's achievements in the sector did not get a favourable review from the MPs, but it is currently working on a sector-wide action plan on short, medium and longer-term labour shortages and skills gaps.
The DCLG notes that 10,000 professionals have used the ASC's services. While this may only be a small proportion of the overall workforce, it remains a significant number. But Planning Officers Society spokesman John Silvester says: "We have seen little evidence that it has been effective. Yes, it has been beneficial, but it may need to sell itself more."
Instead of a sectoral skills body, the government has decided to create a board comprising the HCA, the Planning Advisory Service and CABE to co-ordinate action on planning skills, steered by DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain. Although there is little detail as yet of any of the initiatives this will put in place, Quartermain says he is working with key deliverers on a number of measures.
It is a welcome step to have a group focusing on the planning skills gap and steered by a chief planner with plenty of local authority experience. "I am taking a lead in championing the profession and want to do more to increase planner numbers in the long term," Quartermain explains.
But the government has rejected a proposed yearly assessment of planning employment figures and likely shortages. It insists that long-term trends in planning skills do not alter significantly from year to year, so an annual survey would be an extra burden. Instead, it will gather information on the topic every three years.
It also dismisses the need for a statutory chief planner in councils, on the basis that it would be wrong to impose a particular model without clear evidence on the benefits. However, it does admit that local government planning needs effective leadership. More research must be done on how many authorities have no planning representation at corporate level and how this affects delivery and performance, it says.
The report was a timely reminder of what has been a millstone around the profession's neck for years. It is hard to believe that ministers needed it to highlight the difficulties. Yet after much nudging, the government does seem ready to embrace change.
What is needed now is action. An advertising campaign to raise the profile of the profession could do a lot of good. Let's hope that the department's fresh approach to skills development will yield results.
- The government response to Planning Matters - Labour Shortages and Skills Gap is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.