Government plans to strip planning powers from tardy decision-makers have put the performance of planning departments under the microscope in recent weeks.
Ministers say their "special measures" policy is necessary, as planning delays can cause the loss of investment and jobs. They point to figures showing a near 20 per cent decline in the proportion of major applications determined within the 13-week statutory time limit over the last four years as evidence that action is needed.
But can local planning authorities (LPAs) really be expected to maintain performance levels at a time when their budgets are being squeezed?
Until now, evidence of the impact of austerity on LPA resources has been largely anecdotal. Reports by think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies and watchdog the Audit Commission have suggested that planning services have faced disproportionate cuts.
However, in these studies, planning was included in a broader "planning and development" category - which also covered such services as economic development and business support - potentially masking changes to planning team staffing levels. To more fully gauge the health of LPAs, Planning, in partnership with the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Planning Officers Society, has carried out an exclusive survey.
The survey of heads of planning departments in England reveals the extent of the cuts made to LPA planning teams over the past two years. According to staffing figures reported by 63 heads of planning who provided full data, the number of professional planners employed by LPAs dropped by 12.6 per cent between October 2010 and October 2012 (see figure 1). On average, this represented a reduction of 2.8 professional planners.
The analysis shows that just over half of councils reduced numbers of professional planners between 2010 and 2012. But not all heads of planning reported a decrease in the number of professional planners in their department. More than a quarter (27 per cent) said that numbers had stayed the same, while 22.3 per cent reported increases (see figure 2).
Meanwhile, more than a third (37.3 per cent) of respondents said that they would have to make cuts to their teams later this year or next year in order to meet budgetary requirements (see figure 3). Of the councils that said it would be necessary to make cuts, nearly a third (32.1 per cent) said that the savings would be made across development management and strategic planning functions, as well as in support staff.
By and large, respondents do not believe that the recent one-off planning application fee increase will boost resources. Nearly three-quarters said that they do not expect the 15 per cent fee increase, which came into effect last month, to increase the resources available to their planning team later this year or next year (see figure 5).
Respondents are also concerned about the impact of proposed new planning reforms on fee income. Growth and Infrastructure Bill proposals would give developers permission to bypass poor-performing councils and choose to have their applications determined by the Planning Inspectorate, which would also have large-scale commercial and industrial projects referred to it.
Separate proposals would allow householders and firms to build larger extensions without the need for planning permission. Eighty per cent of respondents expected the proposals to reduce their department's planning application fee income (see figure 7).
A lack of sufficient resources could also hamper the preparation of neighbourhood plans, the survey suggests. Only 8.1 per cent of survey respondents felt confident that their planning team had enough resources to support local groups to produce neighbourhood plans. Nearly four-fifths (78.4 per cent) said that they were not confident that their team had enough resources (see figure 6).
Planning carried out an online survey of LPA heads of planning in England in November 2012. There were 76 respondents.