The current decline in planning applications witnessed in England and Wales as a result of the credit crunch – down by around 40% in Liverpool on last year, for example – is now starting to bite in Scotland too. This means that income from planning application fees for local authority planning departments is starting to drop.
With income dropping, senior managers in planning departments are beginning to face pressure to cut their expenditure. And the biggest expenditure item by far in their budgets is staff costs.
I don’t mean to scaremonger – people aren’t losing their jobs yet, nor is there any suggestion that might happen in the foreseeable future. But it does mean that the job market will tighten, as posts are left unfilled to cut costs. It also means that it will become more difficult for planners to change jobs and for that invaluable exchange of ideas that happens when new staff arrive.
For me, of equal significance is the impact that this will have on government’s planning reform agenda. Tighter staff resources in local authorities is unlikely to delay the legislative reforms coming in next year. But with fewer staff, the capacity of local authority planning departments to implement the deeper culture change agenda will be affected.
The Scottish Government sees culture change amongst stakeholders in the planning system as critical if planning’s potential to support economic growth and greater community involvement is to be realised. This was emphasised again by the Government’s chief planner Jim Mackinnon at a seminar on mediation in planning just last week. So, presumably it’s no coincidence that the title of the document that lays out the Government’s agenda for culture change is Unlocking planning’s potential.
Unlocking planning’s potential is going to be increasingly difficult if the number of planners in local authorities drops. Who is going to unlock planning’s potential for more efficient decision-making, better design and greater community involvement if not local authority planning departments?
Hence the call to arms. Senior managers in local authority planning departments need to be alive to the threat posed to their staff resources by the economic downturn – because it will ultimately affect the ability of planning departments to unlock planning’s potential.
Now is the time to make massive efforts to retain staff despite drops in planning application fee income, and to use the opportunity offered by the trough in the development cycle to equip staff with the skills they need to unlock planning’s potential when the economy recovers. Not just the hard technical skills that need to form part of the contemporary planner’s armoury like urban design, community engagement and understanding the development industry, but the equally important range of softer, generic skills identifed by the Egan Review such as communication, leadership and conflict resolution.
Economic downturns have traditionally been opportunities for the public sector to become more active in the development sector – witness the construction of parks, hospital and universities in our Victorian cities during economic troughs (such as the complex comprising the University of Glasgow’s Gilmorehill campus, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and Kelvingrove Park), right up to the regeneration of London’s docklands by the London Docklands Development Corporation in the 1980s. Why not use this current downturn to equip local authorities with the skills and capacity demanded by culture change, so that they are ready to deliver the Government’s planning reforms as soon as development demand picks up again? With local authority planners skilled to lead on the proactive planning agenda, we could see a real difference in the quality of development being delivered throughout the country.
This will not only require corporate managers in planning departments to fight the case for budgetary and staff retention in the face of declining departmental revenue, but also to invest in staff skills in line with the culture change agenda. But there are plenty of sources of support out there – from the organisational support which Planning Aid for Scotland and Architecture + Design Scotland are keen to offer, to the free training and development offered to individual planners by the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Networks and local Chapters.
So, a call to arms: let’s use this economic downturn to prepare to unlock planning’s potential.