It has been 18 months since the government raised planning application fees by 20 per cent to help ease stark resourcing issues at council planning departments. However, a study last month by the Local Government Association' Planning Advisory Service (PAS) revealed that problems persist. The findings have elicited fresh calls from the sector for help in plugging skills and funding gaps.
The study, produced on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, found that a total of 183.7 new posts were created as a direct result of the fee rise that came into effect in January 2018 – of which 142.2 were permanent staff. This equates to an average of 1.15 new permanent posts for each of the 123 authorities that responded to the survey.
Total fee receipts among respondents rose by £10.2 million, or 12.1 per cent, since last January, and every region saw a rise in fees except the West Midlands, which suffered a slight drop due to lower volumes of planning applications. "The fees increase has had a positive impact overall – there is no question about it," said Richard Crawley, programme officer at PAS.
Some 60 per cent of respondents said the increase was "very helpful" compared to three per cent that said it was "not helpful at all". But PAS noted that for many councils the fee increase had simply compensated for a drop in revenue from other sources.
"I would be concerned if the findings suggested we had addressed all resourcing issues at planning authorities," said Simon Prescott, partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, whose clients include housebuilders and other developers. "The lack of resourcing is still up there as the number one barrier to development of new projects and we struggle with that on a daily basis."
Just over half (50.3 per cent) of respondents said they spent extra income from the fees increase on new permanent positions, while 15.4 per cent used it to pay for new temporary posts and 10.8 per cent to draft in consultants. In terms of skills, 65 per cent of councils said the extra cash was spent on creating new development management posts, a conclusion that echoes the findings of the 2019 Fees and Resources Survey by Planning – while investment in ICT was another popular use for the money. "It’s encouraging to see that [the fee rise] has had a noticeable impact on recruitment, particularly for new permanent posts," said Sarah Platts, president of the Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners, and strategic planning and infrastructure manager at Kent County Council.
Despite this, the study points to a skills shortage. Respondents faced challenges recruiting new team members, even with greater financial resources to do so, Crawley said. In particular, recruitment of senior planners – the most in-demand role for the authorities surveyed – has slumped, with 26.4 per cent of attempts to recruit this category of staff ending in failure, the study showed. It compares to a 13.2 per cent failure rate for team leaders, 10.2 per cent for graduate and junior planners, and 5.8 per cent for technical staff.
"[The failure rate] should prompt concern," Platts said. "There is a real challenge around the lack of qualified planners and all sectors are struggling." Prescott said his firm finds it hard to recruit senior planners, and questioned whether this reflects a lull in career development during the last recession.
The survey also shows that many councils are under-resourced when it comes to specialist areas of expertise, such as enforcement, viability, listed buildings and environmental impact assessments – which are often outsourced to consultants.
The average size of a council planning department stands at 38 staff, the study showed, although there are regional variations. The average size of a London planning department is 72. Recruits are often pulled in to the capital from the home counties, dealing a blow to departments in the South East and East of England. "Councils are grappling with the fact that there has not been a big pool of people diving into the profession each year," Crawley said.
Recruitment is expected to become even harder in the next five years, the study showed, and the sector is working to address the challenge, for example through the Royal Town Planning Institute's (RTPI’s) accredited apprenticeship scheme and council-specific programmes. The RTPI’s initiative, approved by the government in March, is the first degree-level apprenticeship to train chartered town planners in England, and is expected to help tackle the shortage of planners, relieve capacity pressures and open up the profession to a wider cohort, said Platts. "However, much more needs to be done to promote public sector planning as a valued and attractive career – and critically, planners must have the assurance from government that the planning system will enable them to help deliver vibrant and cohesive communities," she added.
Meanwhile, the sector is awaiting publication of the government’s promised Accelerated Planning Green Paper later this year. Former communities secretary James Brokenshire revealed in a speech to the Chartered Institute of Housing in June that the government was considering an additional increase in planning application fees.
For now, the PAS findings are a reminder that the battle to properly resource planning is far from won. "These findings reinforce the need for council planning departments to be given further resources – including being able to set their own planning fees – to ensure applications are processed as efficiently and effectively as possible," an LGA spokesman said.