The survey of heads of planning in English councils, which we carried out with the help of both the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Planning Officers Society, gives a new insight into the resource levels available specifically to planning departments. Local government watchdog the Audit Commission has been compiling figures measuring the impact of cuts on broader council planning and development activity, which showed an even more alarming 16 per cent cut in 2011/12. But figures for planning alone have been harder to find.
The statistics show that the tough times are far from finished. Almost twice as many respondents thought that they would have to cut staff this year and next year than thought that they would not (although 40 per cent of respondents said they were not yet clear about likely future staffing levels). Three-quarters did not expect to be able to expand their team this year or next year. The same proportion does not expect the recently implemented rise in planning fees to increase resources for the planning team in the immediate future. And four-fifths say that they expect the extension of permitted development rights and diversion of more applications to the Planning Inspectorate to cut fee income.
The sense of constrained resources seems to be leading to widespread pessimism about town halls' ability to deliver some of the planning reforms. Three-quarters of respondents were not confident that they had enough resources to adequately support neighbourhood planning, and most planning chiefs who felt they needed to revise their local plans to make them comply with the National Planning Policy Framework say that they will not have done it in time for the March deadline. Relatively few, however, thought that this would lead to significant development in unallocated land.
In mitigation, the Audit Commission's figures for town hall planning and development spending suggest that cuts next year will be far less severe than this year. If that proves to be true in planning specifically, as well as the broader sector, then planners can at least expect the grip of austerity to soften a little. And by no means all councils are cutting staff. But public sector planners are not out of the woods yet.
Given the pressures mentioned above, some planners will want to use the Christmas holidays to get a complete break from the sector. But anyone wanting to remind themselves why a planner's work is worth doing would be well-advised to listen to American Planning Association president Mitchell Silver's RTPI Nathaniel Lichfield Annual Lecture (see the link at the end of the interview on p16). I've never heard a more inspiring talk about planning.
Richard Garlick, editor, Planning email@example.com
The next issue of Planning is published on 11 January 2013