Pay up or pay out

Planners are receiving mixed messages on earnings and benefits but the profession's determination to serve society still shines through, Bryan Johnston discovers.

There is good news and bad news on planners' salary packages. For some pay, perks and prospects are surging well ahead of inflation. Others are effectively seeing their wage levels frozen.

Planning managers are increasingly concerned that pay packages are a part of the problem in recruiting staff, despite a growing number of incentives. "Rigid local authority pay scales do not enable employers to reward staff or provide incentives to stay," says one planner who has just moved to the private sector.

"More well-qualified people are needed to support professionals, especially in the first five years of work," reflects a planning inspector based in the Midlands. "Competitive salary is a crucial part of this equation. Without it the quality of staff and the image of the profession is likely to fall. Money spent on attracting the right kind of people to join and stay must be a very sound investment."

Yet there is resentment among planners that they are losing out compared to their legal, accountancy, surveying and engineering counterparts. Even in the built environment sector, some mainstream planners feel that their efforts and qualifications are underappreciated by managers compared with colleagues in economic development, regeneration and even enforcement.

The survey indicates that 30 per cent of planners, and 40 per cent of men, brought in at least £35,000 last year. Although only 16 per cent of women planners were similarly rewarded, a far higher proportion are in the early stages of their careers. Half were aged under 30, half had less than five years' experience and 70 per cent had no managerial responsibility for other staff.

While almost half the planners working in central government departments and agencies earned £35,000 or more last year, only 21 per cent in local government and 26 per cent in regional bodies did likewise. "Public sector pay does not accurately reflect the job, considering the knowledge and experience required to carry it out to a competent standard and the responsibility it carries in making balanced judgements daily," says an East Midlands development control officer.

The intense competition for staff is bringing some respite in market supplements and other incentives in areas facing a particular dearth of planners. This can lead to resentment in workplaces where added incentives are not on offer, resulting in differentials in pay and conditions. But managers feel that they must adapt to market conditions. "One of my main concerns is not being able to offer a competitive package for senior posts," says a London director of planning.

Poor prospects, lack of resources and excessive bureaucracy are pushing more and more planners into the private sector. "I moved to a private house builder for about the same money, much less holiday, my own pension arrangements but a whole lot more fun," says a former head of development control in East Anglia.

Almost 40 per cent of consultants and 62 per cent working for other private employers earned at least £35,000 last year. An Edinburgh urban designer in his early 30s is impressed by pay and conditions at his consultancy. "We are able to buy shares in the company, which is a real incentive to work hard and stay loyal. The employer's contribution to my pension is the best I have ever had."

Prospects in the private sector are good for experienced and commercially aware staff, says a planning manager at a Welsh house builder. "Those who can put value into the business can achieve a high level of remuneration. Increasing regulation of the development industry will undoubtedly increase the demand for planning professionals and in turn lead to higher wages."

But some who have moved into the private sector are less convinced that the grass is greener. "It is a myth that consultancy pays much better than public authorities. While a performance-related bonus can increase the daylight between the two, this is often hard won," warns a mid-30s planning consultant from the East Midlands.

Despite general unease over salaries, planners are probably seeing more fringe benefits. As in 1999, 90 per cent of local authority planners receive pension contributions, although some are concerned that current changes to the national scheme may erode the benefits. Consultants have caught up fast, with 77 per cent now receiving pension payments against 52 per cent in 1999, but some who have moved over miss the local government scheme's generous benefits.

While women do as well as men on pension contributions, female planners are slightly less likely to receive other additional benefits. Twice as many planners now benefit from health care as in 1999, but this is not spread evenly. Consultants are ten times more likely than council planners to be eligible, while planners earning more than £35,000 are four times more likely to benefit as those who remain below this threshold.

Men are twice as likely as women to be provided with a car. Around a third of planners get some help in the cost of running their own cars, although stagnant mileage rates are a source of contention. "We have to drive to remote sites and get very little contribution towards maintenance, road tax or servicing," says one rural planner. Employers' reluctance to pay professional fees and lack of availability of key worker housing are further sources of grievance.

The number of planners entitled to profit shares has climbed from six to nine per cent since 1999 and a third of consultants boost their income via this route. Around one in six planners receive guaranteed or performance-related bonuses, a proportion that rises to 42 per cent for consultants and 37 per cent of planners earning more than £35,000. Yet younger planners are more likely to be on bonus schemes than colleagues over 35.

More than three-quarters of survey respondents are helped with training and continuing professional development. While employers' help with RTPI accredited courses is particularly appreciated, several respondents noted discrepancies in the extent to which individuals enjoy expenses or day release. Being stuck on the same career grade for the duration of accredited courses is another downside.

Given the benefits to employers as well as staff, it is disappointing that 23 per cent of planners receive no help with training. "My authority refuses to fund training events despite a severe shortage of senior planners. Younger officers are expected to act in positions beyond their level of experience for no extra money and insufficient investment in training," says a development control officer in the Midlands.

Wide variations are also evident in planners' pay review performance. A rise of one to three per cent was the outcome for 44 per cent in the last pay round, against 59 per cent in 1999. Sixteen per cent saw pay rises of more than five per cent, against 12 per cent in 1999, and most expect to repeat that at their next review. The outcomes were similar for men and women, although female planners are less optimistic about future reviews.

The biggest pay rises are among younger planners, albeit from a low base. So more than a quarter of 25 to 29-year-olds saw increases of more than five per cent and 24 per cent expect a similar result this year. While only one in every six local government planners won more than three per cent last year, 35 per cent of central government planners achieved this. Two-thirds of private sector planners got at least a three per cent rise, compared to 48 per cent in 1999, and 71 per cent per cent of consultants expect the same this year.

Many planners in the upper echelons are prospering. At last review, just one in eight earning £25,000 to £30,000 saw a five per cent increase or better, whereas a quarter of those earning £45,000 to £50,000 attained this level. The survey received responses from around 40 planners earning at least £60,000 a year. Of these half are under 50, 12 are in local government, 15 in consultancy and ten in other private sector firms.

Performance-related pay appears to be beneficial. At last review, 37 per cent of planners whose pay is tied to performance secured a five per cent rise or better, against only nine per cent with no link. Such deals are becoming an established feature for new entrants, experienced by a third of planners aged 25 to 34. But only 16 per cent of local authority staff are on performance-related reviews, against 58 per cent of consultants and 54 per cent of other private sector planners.

The real horror story is that pay rises have effectively dried up for a substantial minority of planners. Almost 20 per cent overall, and 24 per cent of local government planners, saw no change or a cut in salary at their last pay review. In 1999, this figure was around seven per cent. One in six expect no improvement at their next review.

Planners throughout the country complain of an effective wage freeze. "I am concerned that our current job evaluation exercise will downgrade the status and salary of planning officers," says a development control manager in the North West. "The council says the outcome will have to be fitted into the existing salary budget, so if other jobs are upgraded and salaries increased ours will have to go down."

Despite such alarms, the comments received underline planners' commitment to their role. An inner London service manager in his 40s concludes: "Planning is a great profession and a fantastic influence on people's lives, but we need support and leadership. One way of showing confidence and inspiring performance is to have salaries that reflect this importance. Every planner at every level should be paid £5,000 more."


It is a great pleasure to sponsor the Planning Salary Survey 2007. We believe that the results set a valuable benchmark for the UK town planning industry and we hope that the results will be of great benefit to individuals and organisations alike.

The in-depth research that has been carried out, with help from the many planning professionals who completed the questionnaire, is designed not only to identify trends in pay, conditions and training in town planning but also wider issues such as gender equality and job satisfaction.

These are the kind of questions we ask potential job seekers at interview and their answers provide us with the best steer as to the type of organisation and role that would best suit them. This information, coupled with the team's knowledge of our clients' culture, ethos and remuneration packages, enables us to make strong matches between candidate and client, saving valuable time and avoiding frustration.

Cobalt's town planning recruitment consultants aim to provide you with the most confidential, tailored and focused job search in the market. We act for a diverse range of private and public sector clients, recruiting planning professionals on a permanent or interim basis. If you are thinking about making a career move or would like to discuss your organisation's recruitment requirements, please do not hesitate to contact us for a confidential discussion (see p16 for details).

Massa Sydique, Cobalt Recruitment.

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