ANALYSIS: Leaders in search of status

The case for giving statutory status to heads of planning is back on the agenda, says David Dewar.

Councils are required by law to employ key senior officials such as chief executives, chief education officers, chief treasurers and heads of social services. But no such status is conferred on the post of chief planning officer.

Local authorities can choose to split their planning functions, placing the head of the planning service at any tier of the organisation and giving the post to a non-planner. Key planning organisations argue that this is an inadequate state of affairs.

Last month Conservative MPs attempted to resuscitate this issue by proposing an amendment to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill that would have introduced statutory status for chief planning officers. The proposed amendment was withdrawn, but not without an extensive debate in the bill's standing committee.

The opposition argues that the move would give heads of planning more status with council colleagues, councillors and the general public. "We would all agree that chief planning officers need to be of the highest calibre and sensitivity to deliver the future vision of their authorities and local community," said Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, leading for the Tories.

"Agricultural land worth a few thousand pounds an acre can often be turned into development land worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds, so the decisions of planning officers and their recommendations to their committees can be hugely important, not only to the people developing the land but also to the community and surrounding area. One big development can shape the whole future of a town or city."

The Tory amendment sought to give the officer responsible for planning statutory recognition similar to that of other council chiefs. "It would not prevent local authorities from combining the post with others, nor would it prevent them from using a variety of job titles to suit local wishes," Clifton-Brown explained.

Statutory status would also boost efforts to attract people into local authority planning, he argued. "We need to ensure that planning officers are given that status, that they are paid properly, that we have more trained planning officers and that there is proper career progression and development. All those are lacking at present."

Labour MP Alan Whitehead lent his support to the clause. He pointed out that major changes have occurred in recent years in council structures, removing the "silos" of professional status and replacing them with "super-departments" in which professional qualifications or background are less significant.

While Whitehead accepted that these trends have made councils work better, he warned that they have also led to the demise of the sense that there are particular areas "that need a focus of concern". This, coupled with the move towards more proactive planning and the advent of cabinets and elected mayors, has left chief officers uncertain of their role, he said.

"Planning now plays a number of roles in local government and planning authorities. This is the reason why the principle of recognising the role of chief planning officer - whether or not that person goes by that exact title - is important. There is such recognition in other areas, where specific posts form the statutory basis on which other officers work," he argued.

In Whitehead's view, statutory status for heads of planning would "underline the importance of planning officers in that process and in the wider procedure of ensuring that planning becomes part of the fabric of local authorities - not part of the silo, as it was for some people in years past".

This topic has been raised before in recent years, not least by the Nolan Committee on standards in public life in its 1997 report on probity in local government. In the event, the committee recommended that there was no need to extend statutory protection for chief planning officers.

Former Ashford Borough Council chief planner Anthony Slack, who gave evidence to the inquiry on behalf of the RTPI, still maintains that conferring statutory status on heads of planning would be a step forward. A key factor, he argues, is the trend in many local authorities for splitting planning functions between different departments.

Where authorities have split their plan-making and development control duties, "conflicts can arise", Slack warns. "If there were a statutory post at the head of the service, it would be clear where the responsibility lies for planning."

The proposed amendment to the bill was penned for the Tories by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). "Unless planning gets better status in local authorities, it is not going to get chief planning officers with the skill and sensitivity to deliver the sustainable communities plan's objectives. That is the bottom line," cautions TCPA director Gideon Amos.

Planning Officers Society publicity officer James Russell agrees that statutory status would be an important fillip for the profession. "We particularly need it because of the quasi-judicial nature of significant parts of the planning process," says Russell.

"A post identified as chief planning officer would help protect the position and also help give appropriate status to planning and raise its image, which is something that the government is very keen to do," he adds. "In the current situation it doesn't have to be a planner and it can be at any level. This has been part of the reason for the dumbing down of planning."

In the standing committee, Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Green supported the principle of the clause, but warned that it could have a financial effect on authorities. "The trend is to keep telling councils that they must have one of these and one of those," he explains.

"The danger is that a council's ability to manage its staffing arrangements, especially at the highest-paid levels, becomes very difficult." But Russell disagrees: "Provided someone is identified as a chief planner, I don't think that it would significantly impede the flexibility of arrangements for councils."

Planning minister Keith Hill, despite admitting that he has "some sympathy" for the aims of the amendment, rejected it as unnecessary. In Hill's opinion, the safeguards for officers coming under pressure to make certain recommendations are already adequate.

"The new national code of conduct for local government gives an officer in such circumstances the opportunity to make a complaint to the Standards Board for England," he pointed out.

As for raising the profile of the planning profession, Hill argued that the government's current programme of reforms, the Egan review and other initiatives on culture change and mainstreaming planning will achieve that objective without any need for statutory status for heads of planning.

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