Is Public Practice helping to address the planning skills shortage?

The Public Practice social enterprise that aims to boost public sector built environment expertise through placements of private sector professionals has completed its first year. Is it helping to address the planning skills shortage, asks Adam Branson.

Lucia Cerrada Morato
Lucia Cerrada Morato

In April, Public Practice celebrated its first anniversary of being fully operational. The notfor- profit social enterprise, which matches built environment professionals from the private sector with local authorities in need of additional support, saw its first cohort of ‘associates’ begin work at councils in April 2018.

Those taking part in the scheme commit to working with their authority for a minimum of one year. They are paid directly by the authorities, which also pay a £5,000 placement fee to Public Practice. According to the social enterprise, 16 of the 17 associates have remained working in the public sector since their placement finished, although not necessarily in the same roles. A further 37 associates started their new roles in April.

Public Practice says its primary purpose is to widen the skills available to councils and therefore their ability to deliver development both more quickly and to a higher quality. Inevitably, associates work closely with authorities’ planning departments. But the extent to which the organisation’s staff are helping to address shortages in core professional planning skills in local authorities is less clear. Only one member of the first cohort, Kathy MacEwen, was a chartered town planner. Similarly, there is only one chartered planner in the second cohort.

MacEwen, who was placed with the London Borough of Hounslow, has held planning roles at both Camden and Hackney councils. Subsequent experience includes heading up design review work at former government advisory body the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and its successor the Design Council, as well as working as an independent consultant.

It was MacEwen’s design review experience, rather than her chartered planner status, that led to her being placed with Hounslow. "They wanted to increase their design capacity and to set up a design review panel," she says. "It’s now embedded within the planning department."

In addition, MacEwen trained the council’s planners on design issues, and advised on projects. "I wasn’t looking at applications," she says. "But I did go to their [major projects] meetings and their urban design surgeries to input into the discussions about design."

According to Sarah Scannell, assistant director for planning and development at the borough, recruiting people with design skills has historically been a struggle for the council. "We’ve been advertising jobs for years but we never had an architect or an urban designer apply for them. I’ve met loads of people from Public Practice who said that they had long wanted to get into local authorities but they never see any roles. So, it’s that matching that Public Practice has done extremely well."

MacEwen may be a rare example of a chartered planner among the Public Practice cohorts. But she is far from the only one who is involved in core planning work, if you include advising on major applications, strategic site allocations and planmaking in that category. Finn Williams, cofounder and chief executive of Public Practice, estimates that 21 of the 37 associates in the second cohort, and 11 of the 17 in the first cohort, spend the majority of their time on such tasks.

Much of this work is related to urban design. Outside the capital, Public Practice placed architect Hana Loftus, director of architects HAT Projects, with South Cambridgeshire District Council. She was put to work on a project that aimed to better engage residents of eight villages in the area with the need for and design of new developments.

"[Multiple] village communities have been getting a lot of speculative planning applications and there was a real concern about growth and the type of development," says the authority’s built and natural environment manager Jane Green.

"The project was about bringing forward design guides for particular villages and communicating how residents could influence growth."

Loftus and her colleagues drew up supplementary planning documents to shape future developments to make them more acceptable to residents. "We’ve now done the formal consultation on seven of them," says Loftus, adding that an eighth has just gone out for formal consultation. The outcomes of the consultations are being fed into the new local plan.

Back in the capital, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets wanted to use Public Practice to beef up its planning policies on high-density development and was matched with architect Lucia Cerrada Morato, formerly of Maccreanor Lavington Architects. Sripriyar Sudhakar, head of regeneration at the borough, says that working with Public Practice helped them to find the right person quickly.

Like Loftus, Cerrada Morato is doing planning work that has a strong design element, but also has other aspects. She says her role is predominantly about helping the borough develop best practice guidance for high density and tall buildings in the borough. "They have really high densities and that is increasing as applications are coming through," she says. "We are also working with the infrastructure team in developing new section 106 clauses to support high-density development."

Finally, in outer London, the London Borough of Bexley has also been using Public Practice associates to promote design input into its planning and placemaking work. Alex Csicsek, senior planner in the council’s placemaking team, says the advent of the initiative coincided with the council’s realisation that, if growth was to be supported by both councillors and the public, development needed to be sensitive to the local area.

The formation of the council’s placemaking team followed, and a Public Practice associate from the first cohort was placed in the team, followed by a further two from the second cohort. "We are related to the planning policy team, but we focus on the spatial side of policy," says Csicsek. "We do big masterplans and one of our big projects is the design SPD, which will support our emerging local plan. The Public Practice people are embedded in that project."

Fifteen months into its implementation, the Public Practice programme cannot yet be said to be providing many chartered planners from the private sector to address the shortage of planning professionals in local authorities. But its associates are also clearly making a significant contribution to planning work, particularly in terms of urban design.

WHY ARE THERE SO FEW PLANNERS ON THE PROGRAMME?

While all Public Practice associates are, to a greater or lesser degree, working with local authority planning departments, very few are actually chartered town planners. The first cohort boasted just one – Kathy MacEwen at Hounslow – while the second also involves just one, Belinda Greenwell, formerly of the consultancy Savills, a housing and planning advisor at the London Borough of Sutton. The vast majority are architects or urban designers.

According to Finn Williams, co-founder and CEO of Public Practice, this wasn’t a deliberate policy, but was in response to demand from local authorities, which he says was predominantly for design abilities rather than core planning skills such as development management or plan-making.

"We’re really keen to reflect the full breadth of built environment practitioners and planners are central to that," he says, adding that Public Practice wants to include more chartered planners in future cohorts. "But we’re keen to complement the skills that are already there at authorities and there are a lot of brilliant, highly motivated planners in authorities."

There is also a supply issue, according to Williams. The proportion of planners working in the public sector has declined in recent decades, but the fall has been more pronounced in other professions. He says: "It has dropped from around 80 per cent 20 years ago to 50 per cent now, but with architecture, for example, it’s gone from 50 per cent to less than one per cent. So, there is a big supply of architects who are potentially interested in working in the public sector. A lot of people who want to do it in planning are already doing it."


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