O planners, where art thou?

With planning student numbers in decline, the profession is significantly short of qualified staff, as shown in a conversation overheard by Cliff Hague.

"Bad news I'm afraid, Andy."

"Sorry to hear that, Dennis. What's up in your development control team?

No heat in the temporary office? Your technician hasn't died of pneumonia has he?"

"As director of environment, place quality and regulation services, you'll have been far too busy to notice that Dwayne's actually been back at work for a week now. No, this is new bad news. Jenny's given in her notice."

"Jenny?"

"Planning assistant. Lynchpin of the south area development control team."

"Jenny? I didn't know we had a Jenny. She been here long?"

"Started in September. While you were on holiday. Graduated in the summer.

Filled Eric's post after his breakdown."

"Oh, that Jenny, yes, yes. Remember her well. Resigned? I thought you said she only started in September. There's, erm, nothing wrong is there?"

"She was headhunted by Gary Andrews. He's given her two increments, a car loan and a relocation package."

"Relocation? But Gary's council is next door to us. She won't even need to move."

"And she won't be working in a temporary office."

"Look Dennis, you know I've moved heaven and earth to try to get your team out of that office. Once the chair of social services commandeered your old offices for her disruptive and stupid teenagers support centre the temporary office was your best option. Need I remind you that the leader of the opposition wanted development control to work from stalls in the market square so that you'd be 'more accessible to the council taxpayers'? If it hadn't been for the Bavarian Beerfest in October you'd be based there now."

"We need to get Jenny replaced pretty damn quick, Andy. I'm struggling to meet my targets already. We've got a couple of appeals coming up, some big applications still untouched and householder applications are going through the roof. There's still the fallout from the demolition of the listed gateways to get the temporary offices on site and I have it on good authority that Steve the Screwdriver is applying for permission for a casino."

"Steve the Screwdriver? Isn't he inside for trying to 'persuade' Eric on the merits of his application for a health centre on that site of special scientific interest?"

"He is, but he'll be out by the end of the year. Says he's been reading about regeneration and sustainable development and is a reformed character."

"There's some good in everyone."

"Says he wants to do his bit to make our town a sustainable community by taking on a difficult brownfield site."

"Excellent. Which one is it? The old gasworks? The rubber goods factory?"

"The old people's home."

"But it's in use."

"Exactly. It's the eviction that makes it 'difficult'. So, I need a replacement for Jenny, but it won't be easy. We were struggling last time. In her second week here she gave permission for a 60m high cylindrical tower on a site of two-storey vernacular cottages in a conservation area."

"She did what?"

"Said that she got confused about the scale and mistook the stain from her coffee mug on the drawings for the proposed development."

"Dennis, we're well rid of her. She's Gary's problem now. I'll get human resources to draft an advert next week."

"I need somebody now."

"We can try getting one of those Australian temps again."

"Do you remember the problems last time? The councillor who phoned in was greeted by: 'G'day, you're through to Shane from Karakooba. How can I help?' Why the member jumped to the conclusion that it was a gay sex chatline remains a mystery, even after his resignation. Then there was Shane's insistence on 'consulting the native peoples' about the burger bar application. Who told him that native peoples round here drive white vans that they believe carry their ancestral spirits?"

"Look, Dennis, it can't be that difficult to find somebody to do development control. It's not rocket science."

"Andy, you've been able to pick up rocket scientists at the job centre since the the collapse of the Soviet Union. In contrast there's nobody left who can do development control. Jenny was the last one. A new study for the Local Government Association, the ODPM and the Employers Organisation found that there is an overall shortage of planners and that the situation is especially acute in design and development control."

"Do they come up with any solutions?"

"Yes. Local authorities should work with neighbouring councils to share staff and resources."

"Exactly. Get on to Gary Andrews. See whether he can lend us Jenny back for the night shift. She could work from his office instead of our temporary one."

"I tried already. Apparently Jenny needs her sleep. The report also advises us to develop more proactive links with planning schools."

"Do they teach development control? You said Jenny wasn't quite up to speed when she joined us."

"They usually do some planning law and development control, but generally it's not very hands on and you only need to get 35 per cent to pass."

"Thirty-five? In my day you'd have been thrown out with marks like that."

"You're giving your age away. I approached a planning school to see whether they'd teach a specialist development control course. You know, map reading and architectural drawings, design vocabulary, basic site and building calculations, planning law and procedure, principles of regulation, forms of regulatory regimes related to development control, special planning controls, enforcement, computerised storage and data use, computer aided design and geographic information systems, planning appeals, dealing with enquiries and objectors as if they were customers, a bit about councillors and their delusions and even something on performance targets and Best Value."

"Sounds good. What did they say?"

" I couldn't get any sense out of them. They just kept talking about something called research assessment exercises, top-up fees and 'the cap'."

"Are they cracking up?"

"Probably. I don't think they have that many planning students, but they cannot take any more due to a limit on the total number of students the university can admit unless they are from overseas. Anyway, they don't have time to teach because they have to write articles."

"Who reads the articles?"

"A panel of academics. In 2008."

"That all? Nobody else?"

"That's pretty much it."

"Not much help there then. What do you suggest?"

"Well the report does talk about more targeted use of the planning delivery grant. I recommend that we begin with a moderate pay hike for you and me, extra heaters for the office and we offer Jenny a senior planning officer post and a generous relocation allowance."

"Permission granted."


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