Green skills in demand

Planners will need to develop their technical and commercial expertise now that zero carbon construction and infrastructure provision are key priorities, reports Domenic Donatantonio.

It is February 2010 at a local authority planning office. A developer is holding out on affordable housing provision and is negotiating with an energy services company about off-site renewable energy sources.

The council has come up with its five-year infrastructure target and the planning officer has been charged with setting the levy. It's a scenario with which planning staff are likely to become increasingly familiar following last week's announcement of the proposed community infrastructure levy (CIL).

Together with recent policy developments on sustainability and climate change, developer contributions are playing a larger and larger part in the planning workload. Planners and developers alike will need to hone their financial and negotiating skills to deal with an increasingly diverse range of potential partners.

Energy service companies, which develop, install and arrange financing for energy efficiency projects, are a case in point. Similarly, multi-utility service companies are likely to expand their involvement as house builders and commercial firms embrace zero carbon technology. But how many planners know in detail how such outfits work?

Last autumn's Mind the Skills Gap report by consultancy Arup for the Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC) revealed that despite major government initiatives, there remains a severe shortage of professionals to deliver sustainable communities within the next five years (Planning, 14 September 2007, p2).

Planning Advisory Service head Sarah Richards argues that the lessons have still to be fully digested. "Changing the skills base will not happen overnight," she says. "It also needs a knowledge base on such areas as the requirements of carbon-neutral technology. All professionals have to keep up with this kind of information, not just planners."

Arup planning director Chris Tunnell is concerned that planners lack a detailed grounding in many environmental issues. "The key issue for the profession is a basic understanding of climate change and new sustainable technology," he says. "Where it really bites is on the energy side. More and more applications need to be accompanied by energy assessments."

Under the CIL, councils will produce an agreed infrastructure target to support development in their area, assess building costs and set payment guidelines. This may mean different charges for housing, industrial and office schemes. The tariff will give landowners and developers a clear idea how much they will have to pay and how the proceeds are being spent from the outset.

For the system to work fairly and efficiently, planners will need to assess the commercial viability of individual projects, a role in which few are as yet well versed, Richards observes. "They will need to look at the developer's finances and market needs to work out what will be successful," she advises.

The providers of planning skills will be called to account as they come under further scrutiny from a Commons communities and local government select committee inquiry announced last week (Planning, 25 January, p1). The inquiry, the first of its kind, will focus on the new skills needed by planning staff and their capacity to deal with sustainable and infrastructure legislation.

The committee is also briefed to look at the skills needed by councillors in making planning decisions, the role of agencies involved in monitoring, developing and providing specialist knowledge and the effectiveness of government in supporting local authorities.

Milton Keynes South West MP Phyllis Starkey, who chairs the committee, says the inquiry stems from evidence given in an ongoing investigation into housing and climate change. "On more than one occasion, we have been told that there is a big problem with building control and that planning officers do not have the right skill sets for dealing with sustainability and energy efficiency," she explains.

ASC chairman Peter Roberts is bullish about the line his organisation will take. "We will tell the committee that ASC initiatives such as a new foundation degree in sustainable communities launched this month at Sheffield Hallam University are working well," he says. "Our toolkit for active citizenship is getting to youngsters in schools. It is not just about planning. Housing and renewal also need to be transmitted to young planners."

Tunnell suggests that a graduate initiative set up by national regeneration agency English Partnerships offers one model for solving the skills shortage. This gives staff the opportunity to take up a temporary placement in a private sector practice. "That way they get to see both sides of the process," he explains.

Starkey makes it clear that she does not expect legislative changes as a result of the committee's inquiry. "This is more of a case of how we can reskill the industry," she says.

After last week's warning from RTPI policy director Rynd Smith that it could be another decade before graduates start to emerge with the necessary skills, Tunnell takes a more optimistic view. "I'd like to think that we can turn things around in five years."

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