Finn Williams, co-founder and chief executive officer of Public Practice, was speaking at the Planning Advisory Service’s heads of planning conference in Birmingham yesterday.
Williams said the enterprise, which places built environment professionals from a range of backgrounds into local authority planning teams, would be increasing its numbers to 37 at the start of April, marking the second year of its programme.
The charity placed 17 ‘associates’ into council planning teams in April 2018, and at the end of the first year of its programme, Williams said the vast majority will be staying on in their roles.
"All but two of the associates are continuing in their roles, which we are really pleased about. That's better than the retention rate of any normal planning department," he said.
Public Practice is now preparing for the second round of the programme, and Williams said the organisation will be doubling its scale in the next cohort.
"We have 37 associates starting across 24 authorities in a couple of weeks time, at the start of April," he said. "That means we’ve got a growing network which helps to broaden our understanding of the challenges that local authorities face."
Williams said Public Practice offered authorities a "more affordable and sustainable way of building capacity" than agencies.
The organisation aims to conduct research and development with associates to disseminate best practice arising from their experience in their placements.
Williams claimed that, over the past five years, finding people to fill planning posts had become a greater problem than a lack of funding.
"Funding remains an issue for local authorities, but it hasn’t been in the last five years the greatest barrier," he said. "The biggest barrier has not been finding funding but finding people."
"It is important to note also that difficulties in keeping people have increased during that period, and as a result not surprisingly the use of agency staff has increased, although there has been a slight dip in authorities using it routinely over the past two years," Williams added.
Williams said Public Practice had estimated that there were around 800 vacant and temporary planning posts across London.
"This underlines the fact that the money is there but you can’t always find the right people," he said.
Also speaking at the conference, Homes England head of profession Lindsey Richards said she welcomed planning minister Kit Malthouse’s idea of sharing senior planning officers between local authorities as a way of helping tackle skills shortages. But she warned that it may not "fill the gap" in the context of already scarce resources.
The ‘helicopter’ model, would see senior planners being made available to authorities with particularly large or complex applications.
Richards welcomed the idea as "a recognition there about what needs to be done", but added that "whether or not sharing already a scarce resource is the answer, I don’t know."
Richards said she welcomed a debate about how to "share best practice and about how can we work more efficiently in sharing those skills and expertise".