A Fair Day's Work

Unpaid overtime, untaken leave entitlement and heavy management burdens are all facts of life for a significant number of planning staff, writes Bryan Johnston.

For almost two-thirds of planners, a working week of 36 to 40 hours is typical. Only eight per cent of our survey sample enjoys shorter hours. Thirty per cent put in more than 40 hours, of whom one in ten are slogging away for more than 50.

Only 17 per cent of our planners get the job done inside their contracted hours. Sixty per cent reckon they put in up to five hours overtime in an average week and 23 per cent claim to do at least an extra six hours. Two per cent insist that they regularly work more than 15 hours beyond the amount specified in their terms of employment.

Yet only 12 per cent of planners receive any reimbursement for their extra hours. Those who do are more likely to be aged under 35 and earning less than £35,000 a year, where time pressures are less intense. While 20 per cent of planners on £30,000 to £35,000 a year expect to do more than five hours overtime, this climbs to more than one-third of planners earning £5,000 more.

At least there are signs that hard work receives some recognition. At their last pay review, just ten per cent of those doing no overtime got a five per cent rise or better. But salary hikes of that order came in for 15 per cent doing one to five hours over the odds, 22 per cent of those doing six to ten extra hours, almost a third working 11 to 15 hours over and 41 per cent for those spinning out more than 15 hours.

Women may have a better work-life balance. One in seven women but 31 per cent of men reckon they put in at least six hours overtime a week. Eleven per cent of men do at least 11 extra hours a week but only 1.5 per cent of women. More than a quarter of planners in the South East claim to do at least another six hours. In London, one in eight say they work at least 11 extra hours weekly.

Four-fifths of council planners claim to put in at least some extra hours. That rises to 82 per cent of staff in central government departments and agencies, 91 per cent of private companies and 92 per cent of consultants. In local government, development plan staff are less likely to put in extra hours than colleagues in development control or regeneration and economic development.

Despite the long hours culture, some planners point to compensating factors. "We work hard to high expectations but within a positive, honest, open and nurturing environment," says one consultant. "Good performance is well rewarded with bonuses, days away and team events. Promotion is given on performance and not due to age, position or peer group comparisons."

But many working long hours want to cut down. "I would prefer to be allowed to work my contracted hours even if this meant slightly less money. A better work-life balance would benefit both employers and staff," argues a London planning consultant in his late 20s. "I would not mind putting in more hours if we got true flexitime arrangements or paid overtime," says a national park policy planner.

There is concern that people already under pressure are having to take on more responsibilities to maintain their current salaries. "We are supposed to absorb cutbacks in staff and salaries but still expected to do more work," says a West Yorkshire planning policy officer. "I am nearly always required to spend additional time over my core hours due to workload pressures. If we are required to work overtime we should be paid, not work for free," adds a mid-30s policy planner from Kent.

"I am increasingly expected to carry out more and more work for no payment. If I did not do the unpaid overtime I would drown under the complaints, but this is at huge personal cost," a South West development control team leader complains. "My service can only survive through staff doing unpaid work," echoes a development control officer in the East of England.

The survey confirms that public sector staff enjoy more leave. Almost 60 per cent of planners employed by councils and regional bodies, and more than two-thirds of civil servants, are allowed at least 26 days paid leave a year. But only 15 per cent of consultants and 18 per cent of other private sector planners reach this level.

Only one in five planners with less than five years' experience are entitled to five weeks or more paid leave, but this rises to 70 per cent of those with 16 to 20 years' service. Among those who have stuck it for more than 20 years, more than a quarter can expect a minimum of six weeks off each year. Half of men but only 40 per cent of women are entitled to at least five weeks.

Of course, generous leave is pointless if staff do not take all their allotted days. "I get a good leave entitlement but repeatedly finish up not taking a substantial proportion of it. The last time I took time off in lieu for evening meetings was at least four years ago," laments a planning policy team leader who is otherwise satisfied with his salary.

Not surprisingly, the more staff you have the more you get paid. Only 11 per cent of planners with no management responsibility hit £35,000 a year, whereas half of those leading teams of three to five people reach this salary level. Among those in charge of 11 to 15 people, 81 per cent earn more than £35,000 and this rises to 91 per cent for planners responsible for 21 to 30 staff.

The hardest-working managers are those with 21 to 30 and more than 50 staff. Around two-thirds of planners in these categories are normally working at least 11 hours overtime and around a quarter say they do at least 15 hours. Curiously, the vast majority of managers with 31 to 50 staff find they can get the job done without working more than ten hours extra a week.

"The financial rewards for management positions do not generally reflect the responsibilities and challenges," says a Scottish local government planner. A South East development control manager adds: "A lot of experienced planners do not want the stress of senior positions. Few young people starting their career are able and willing to push on into management. Pay is a major factor but so is lifestyle and the hassle factor."

A planning consultant sums up what is required to reflect the profession's importance: "Working conditions should be improved throughout the sector with more flexible working hours, improvements to work-life balance, better trained and motivated staff and more respect."

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