An Endangered Species - The Local Authority Town Planner

Issue 76

I start the new year with a real concern. Is the local town planner becoming extinct? I fear they are becoming as rare as red squirrels.

We work with many consultant town planners and local authority planning authorities, as we navigate the planning laws to achieve permissions for our clients. However, when we submit for applications, the timescales for (virtually) all of them is getting longer and longer. Clients are rightly becoming frustrated by this, and the programming of projects is thus made harder with larger risks.

If we cannot get permissions through in a reasonable timescale then it has an impact on the wider economy and confidence, not just our own work. The impact of this process is therefore critical for jobs in the construction sector, for growth and wellbeing.

So, what is the reason? Well, we receive many return emails and letters (from local authorities) telling us that due to the pandemic and the shortage of planning staff, the applications cannot be dealt with in the appropriate timescales. We are then left guessing as to when pre-applications, applications and conditional confirmations are going to be issued.

Have all the planners moved over from the local authorities to become planning consultants, I wonder? I suspect this is part of the problem. Maybe the grey squirrels are overtaking the red squirrels? (I am sure planning consultants will not want to be called grey squirrels – I do apologise for my analogy)!

This is a real concern, as we need well trained, professional, experienced planning staff who can cope with the volume of applications and give good, reasoned advice.

A good planning service is needed for our town and country to maintain the quality of our built environment. As architects we naturally think the built environment is determined by clever design, but it’s equally improved by the protection of the planning role to make sure approved schemes achieve the requirements of national planning policy as well as local criteria and advance our enjoyment of buildings, roads and facilities.

It is too easy to criticise as every organisation, company and client have had to cope and create new regimes that work over the last two years. We have worked hard at HL to maintain the consistency of service, availability, and skills through the period, and we have a stronger organisation as a result.

So, I do become frustrated by all the organisations – local authorities included – who tell me its business as usual, but slower because staff are working from home. I simply do not follow the logic. I know of one authority whose staff could not make calls since working from home meant they did not have access to telephones!

In conclusion then, how do we solve this planning problem? We absolutely need the local authority planning services to be properly resourced as the first obvious point.

Perhaps the job is not sufficiently attractive or the rewards inadequate – both financially and mentally? I have noticed that as the number of planners drops, those that remain seem to be under more pressure, which only increases the very problem of staff retention.

Whilst I cannot comment on specific working conditions, how do we assist this endangered species? If we do not, will the system grind to a halt? I really do not want to see red squirrels disappear altogether.

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