Last of the chief planning officers

Richard Morris of Sevenoaks Council is one of the few remaining heads of planning service who reports directly to their authority's chief executive. Why are they now so rare?

Sevenoaks Council's head of planning Richard Morris
Sevenoaks Council's head of planning Richard Morris

Local authorities are under increasing pressure to deliver new housing. It is little surprise, then, that the resourcing of town halls’ planning departments, and their ability to influence councilwide decisions, have recently come under scrutiny.

Research by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in June last year suggested that the head of the planning service is a member of the senior management team in only 17 per cent of councils in the UK – even though planning, like social services and education, is a statutory function. The research examined 212 authorities across London, South East England, North West England, Wales, Scotland and the Irish Republic, looking for heads of planning service in the second tier of local government, which means they report directly to the chief executive.

The study only included job titles that were "clearly" linked to planning, "omitting positions such as ‘director of place’ where planning was less than a third of the role’s remit". In the English regions of London, the North West and South East, such second-tier planning chiefs were found in just 14, 10 and 22 per cent of councils surveyed.

The RTPI says the findings provide evidence that planning is being "diluted" as a strategic function. In a follow-up report this summer, the institute called for legislation to require a second-tier chief planning officer as a statutory function, reflecting the conclusions of the 2006 Barker Review of Land Use Planning. The institute said that such a move would "improve the perceived value and influence of the profession" and "positively influence the outcomes of planning to support good growth".

"The influence of council planning departments is important, as most corporate decisions have long-term land use implications," says RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills. "Such decisions could include looking at spatially appropriate sites for care homes, community hubs, leisure centres and schools… and aligning transport initiatives, housing strategies and economic development objectives. To ensure that the influence of planning binds together these aims, planners must have a central role in the formation of the corporate strategy."

The RTPI’s research suggests the influence of planning professionals within councils has weakened in recent decades, although the institute says it has no hard data to show historic shifts in the seniority levels of planners. Interviewees reported, anecdotally, that in the years after World War Two, chief planners officers (CPOs) were embedded within institutional structures and considered prominent senior officials in local government. However, the RTPI said the deregulation of the planning system in the 1980s, followed by waves of governance restructuring, legislative reform and funding cuts, have diminished the presence of professional planners in local government. Nonetheless, a minority of councils have retained the role, while others have created it more recently as part of management restructures.

Some commentators say that the key thing is that the council chief executive has access to internal sources of sound professional advice, whether or not it comes from a planner in the senior management team. "The most senior planner can still have influence if they are a few tiers down," says Alice Lester, planning management specialist at the Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners, and operational director for regeneration, growth and employment at the London Borough of Brent. "It is the approach to planning, rather than the position in a hierarchy, that is important."

The type of authority could also influence the seniority of the role, notes Lester. "If you’re a district authority, planning is one of the biggest things you do," she says. "But unitaries also have to deal with adult social care, children’s services, education and transport. It’s much less surprising that you wouldn’t have a planner at the top table in a unitary council."

Below, we talk to three chief planners in senior council management teams about the value of their enhanced status.

RICHARD MORRIS, chief officer – planning and regulatory services, Sevenoaks District Council

In 2013, Sevenoaks District Council restructured its senior management team in response to budget cuts. It replaced its multiple director model with a new structure comprising a chief executive and seven chief officers (since reduced to four) responsible for specialist functions, including Richard Morris as chief officer for planning.

Bringing the head of planning into the senior leadership team has brought a host of advantages, Morris says. One example is the preparation of the local plan; the new structure helps the planning department get support from other chief officers, who are required to share responsibility for its preparation. "As a shared objective, the task has greater weight and momentum behind it," says Morris. "We can get more buy-in from the rest of the council and the community, and a higher-quality plan." Having a planner at the top table provides more opportunities for "joined-up thinking" between relevant services such as health, education and economic development, he adds. This, he says, means that issues that were once considered separate can more often be handled together, reducing the risk of public "consultation fatigue" and the time taken to resolve issues – potentially saving the council money.

Morris says reporting to the chief executive is empowering: "We talk directly and there is no chance for the message to deviate," he says. But he acknowledges that it can be hard to balance the strategic and operational elements of his job, saying it requires strong powers of delegation and the ability not to get "bogged down" in the minutiae of planning regulations. Morris’s view is that not all authorities need a planner at the top table. But all councils need someone senior who understands and promotes planning, he says. Sevenoaks, which sits within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is heavily constrained from a development perspective, with green belt land accounting for 93 per cent of the district. Hence planning is an acute political priority, he says.

CLAIRE UPTON-BROWN, chief planning officer, New Forest District Council

"If you are serious about delivering good-quality development and creating resilient communities, you should give the role of chief planner the necessary significance," says Claire Upton-Brown, who moved to New Forest District Council in February after five years serving as assistant director of culture and city development at Portsmouth City Council.

There is no good reason not to have a planner at the top tier of local government, regardless of the size or characteristics of the local community, she adds. "All councils are tasked with delivering sustainable development, so even if you are a small council, planning is still very important."

Upton-Brown’s role was created after the retirement of the district’s previous chief executive prompted the council to make changes. In particular, it had faced challenges in hiring and retaining planners, and wanted to give them more clout within the organisation. The job advertisement to which Upton-Brown responded even cited the RTPI’s research as a reason for elevating the status of the role.

Upton-Brown says that having a seat at the top table has made it easier to get her voice heard – both by the chief executive and by managers elsewhere in the council. "For me, planning has never been just about handling planning applications," she says. "It’s about health, wellbeing, environment – all aspects of placemaking, and this also concerns other council departments."

The status of her role allows her to communicate more fully with other departmental heads to learn what is happening across the community. "Having a seat at the table means I can feed that insight into the local plan and influence decisions," she says.

Another advantage of senior management status that she cites is that it gives her the authority to liaise with the heads of local businesses and other stakeholders on the chief executive’s behalf. This helps to engage hard-to-reach or resistant groups, Upton-Brown says, adding: "To have someone at a high level who understands the processes that different stakeholders are going through is a clear statement of intent that the council takes planning – and the local community – seriously."

ANDREW HUNTER, director – place, planning and regeneration, Bracknell Forest Council

Andrew Hunter is one of many planning chiefs who oversee related disciplines such as regeneration and economic development as part of their remits. Until recently, he held the title of chief officer of planning and transport, reporting to a director of environment who was not a planner. However, in September 2018, his role was elevated to senior management level as part of a restructuring at the Berkshire unitary authority. "As well as making cost savings, the council wanted to align all of its ‘people’ services, and push placemaking higher up the agenda," Hunter says.

"The move has been really helpful, because you are hearing first hand what the council’s political priorities are, and can link that strongly with your planning objectives," he says. "Everyone at the top table has a shared understanding of the service pressures in the local area and how planning should address them – it allows a more holistic approach than previously."

Hunter believes that it was more common for authorities to have a chief planner in their senior management team 10-15 years ago, but that a variety of pressures, some of them budgetary, have since made it rare. But now, he argues, the impact of legislation such as the Localism Act of 2011, and the pressure on councils to deliver new homes, have persuaded authorities of the importance of factoring senior-level planning advice into corporate decisions.

Senior management status, along with technical expertise, can help public sector planning professionals to resolve disputes with elected members that threaten to delay development, says Hunter. "I have a good understanding of what local politicians are trying to achieve, and can explain the regulatory frameworks within which we must operate," he says.

However, he does not believe a top-tier planner should be statutory. "It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach," he says. "At smaller, district, authorities, planning is one of the key functions, so it makes sense to have a planner at the top table. In others, you need someone who is dealing with ‘place’ in all of its facets – and that person does not have to be a planner." 

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