A summer of discontent for local planning authorities (LPAs) saw officers at Portsmouth City and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils self-imposing ‘lock-down’ to tackle a planning applications backlogs.
A report on King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council’s planning function warned that application caseloads were placing ‘extreme pressure’ on officers, who had an average application caseload of 177.
The report noted that neighbouring councils (Fenland, East Cambridgeshire, Broadland and South Norfolk) have caseload numbers of between 99 and 110 applications per officer, stating that the “complexity of planning applications has increased significantly in recent years, alongside a requirement for applications to be dealt with speedily and within tight timescales”.
And review of the Isle of Wight Council found that its planning function was ‘dealing with a number of issues that cause it to function sub-optimally’, resulting in ‘limited access to, and engagement of, planning officers’ and a ‘bottleneck’ of decision-making.
Current staff shortages in LPAs are unprecedented, resulting in significant human, resourcing and financial challenges in addition to delays to new homes and infrastructure.
In the current financial climate an increasing number of LPAs are also looking to reduce their expenditure wherever possible and this could present a further challenge for planning departments.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will likely add to the public sector’s burden, with design codes, changes to EIAs and the Local Plan process and the introduction of the Infrastructure Levy only adding to the technical knowledge required and the processes which need to be undertaken to determine planning applications.
The sector is already stretched thanks to existing challenges including the Environment Act, nutrient neutrality and First Homes. No doubt investment zones will also exacerbate this issue further.
We therefore, find ourselves in a perfect storm, whereby the housing crisis remains unsolved, burdens on LPAs are increasing, the recruitment of skilled and experienced planners is becoming harder, whilst the desire to reduce costs and streamline processes to limit expenditure is growing.
As the Government’s publication of the National Model Design Code (NMDC) Pilot Programme Phase 1: Monitoring & evaluation stated, ‘A steep learning curve is required to produce design codes and to use the new methodology in the NMDC, and with a few exceptions local authorities were not set up to deliver design coding in-house.
Key skills gaps include urban design, graphic communication, viability assessment and digital engagement. Overcoming, skills, capacity, and organisational barriers to preparing design codes in-house will be a necessary investment for authorities who don’t wish to rely on developers to produce design codes.’
But this potential for the public sector to work more closely with the private sector should not be portrayed so negatively. For many years Boyer has been providing services to LPAs, in addition to private developers.
From assisting on a single planning application to representing a council at appeal, those in the private sector have the precise skills necessary to support the public sector – in most cases, because we have worked in, and therefore understand, both. In my case the experience of having worked for a developer as well as several LPAs has helped me to develop these vital transferable skills.
For too long it has been assumed that the public and private sectors are at odds with each other, which is counter-productive and quite wrong: our goal of building better, more sustainable places, is mutual.
With the pressure on LPAs already exacerbating the housing crisis, an urgent solution is needed. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill’s likely increase in planning fees is potentially helpful, but will come with strict performance targets. Furthermore, planning fees are unlikely be ring-fenced and therefore the increased revenue will not necessarily benefit planning teams.
The short-term problem cannot be addressed through longer-term initiatives to attract and develop planning, although this remains important. Instead, there is an immediate solution to be found in utilising the private sector, specifically to compensate for the functions which previously existed in the public sector, such as in design, along with more recent technical requirements.
Ultimately sharing skills and developing experience can benefit individuals, LPAs and the communities that they serve.
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