English Planning: The Fruits of 10 Years of Austerity and Reform

In commemoration of World Town Planning Day, English planner Peter Geraghty offers American planners a personal view of what things are like for their colleagues in the United Kingdom. The balance between community and development interests in the UK has created a system at odds with itself. While planning in the UK is evolving at a different pace than in the U.S., the process of creating planner relevance underscores the value of professional associations like the RTPI and APA.


“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform ...”
― Mark Twain

A recent survey by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in the UK found that 50 percent of public sector planners and almost a third in the private sector thought they were underpaid for their position or level of responsibility.

In the same survey, 53 percent of all respondents felt their team or department did not have the resources to deliver its goals.

A research project by the RTPI into Chief Planners published in June 2019, highlighted how the career development of talented individuals is at risk of being inhibited by the reduced presence of planning within local authorities. This was demonstrated by fewer opportunities for planners to collaborate with other departments such as transport, education, and housing.

Coupled with this is the reduction in training budgets to save money during a time of austerity in the UK. These problems are amplified in local authorities without a Chief Planning Officer to represent the profession and make the case for investing in professional development.

If we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining enough planners with the right skills, we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners. It is also important to ensure that those who join the profession do not leave it mid-career.

There needs to be clarity on what is required of planning practice for the 21st century so that students can be trained with the right skills and provided with the right experience, knowing what is expected of them.

The State of England’s Planning System

Fully embracing Mark Twain’s maxim above, the planning system in England has been in a state of perma-reform for almost 10 years. It began in June 2010, when the incoming Coalition Government announced its intention to abolish regional government and associated spatial strategies. In March 2011, an all-party House of Commons Committee reported on the implications of the measure stating that:

"The intended abolition of regional spatial planning strategies leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years."

The mood music to this reform has been one of skepticism characterized by high-profile political figures variously describing their perceptions of the deficiencies of the planning system: in one case labeling it as a “drag anchor to growth” and in another case referring to it as a major barrier not only to social mobility but business expansion.

In July 2015, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer described the planning system as being “regarded by many as one of the most significant constraints facing the economy, bringing delay and inflexibility.” He went on to say that the country’s planning system creates the “slow, expensive and uncertain process” that reduces the appetite to build.

The Proof and the Consequences

Since then further changes have been introduced as the government has sought to pursue its reform agenda. I believe we are now seeing the consequences on the planning profession. These consequences can be read in the runes of a number of official reports.

For example, the report by the Wales Audit Office on the Effectiveness of Local Planning Authorities in Wales in June 2019, identified significant underinvestment in local authority planning departments and shortages of planners.

The Wales Audit Office report found a significant reduction in capacity and a struggle to deliver statutory responsibilities. Since 2008–09, budgets have fallen by 50 percent in real terms, considering inflation. Net expenditure has fallen from £45 million in 2008–09 to £22.8 million in 2017–18. With less money to fund services, planning officer capacity in Wales is stretched and skills are decreasing in key areas of work.

The number of trainees entering planning has fallen in recent years, which raises concerns over the long-term sustainability of services.

The National Audit Office (NAO) in England report from February 2019: Planning for new homes found that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), which is the government ministry responsible for planning, “does not understand the extent of skills shortages in planning” and that the Planning Inspectorate (the government agency for dealing with planning appeals) does not have a detailed workforce plan.

It points out the number of local authority planning staff fell by 15 percent between 2006 and 2016, while between 2010 and 2018 the Planning Inspectorate experienced a 13 percent fall in staff numbers.

The report notes that, between 2010–11 and 2017–18, there was a 37.9 percent real-terms fall in net current expenditure on planning functions (development control, conservation, and listed buildings policy and other planning policy) in local authorities.

This report was followed shortly after by Bridget Rosewell’s Independent Review of Planning Appeal Inquiries in which she advised the Planning Inspectorate faces a considerable challenge to adequately resource all areas that require experienced inspectors, including inquiry appeal work. The shortage of suitably experienced senior inspectors was particularly acute.

Recruiting Troubles, Planners’ Frustrations

The independent Raynsford Review by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) published in November 2018 found that the difficulty of recruiting planners has become a real issue, compounded by opportunities for early retirement from local authorities, which has resulted in the loss of a great deal of experience in this area.

Reductions in local planning authority training budgets, says Raynsford, means that planners often cannot afford to travel to training events or conferences, limiting their ability to learn from good practice which could increase performance and save money.

It is not just a question of the numbers of planners. As many have highlighted there are wider issues about the attractiveness of the profession and the appropriate skills that modern planners need and the role of public interest in planning. However, this situation has been a long time in the making.

For far too long the planning profession has been vilified for the perceived deficiencies of the system in which they have to work and had to endure general negativity about planning.

The Raynsford Review found a real anger among senior planners who believed that they were now being asked to administer a system whose objectives led, far too often, to poor outcomes for people and failed to deliver long-term place-making. Graduate planners also expressed a real disappointment that the world-changing activity they were inspired to be part of turned out to be little more than “traffic wardens” [Parking Control Agents] for land.

The perma-reform to which the planning system has been subject is undermining an already fragile, public confidence in planning. In a recent survey by property company, Grosvenor Group, when asked whether they trusted their local council to make decisions on large-scale development that are in the best interests of their local area, just 7 percent of respondents said they did. Over a third of the public (36 percent) said that they distrusted their council.

The findings of this survey are reflected in England’s Community Life Survey for 2017–18, in which only 26 percent of respondents agreed that they are able to influence decisions affecting their local area. This has remained fairly consistent since 2013–14. These results demonstrate the importance of having a clear position of what role public interest should play in future planning practice.

As former AICP President Glenn Larson points out in a recent blog, chartered (certified) planners maintain advanced knowledge of the latest planning approaches and trends. As he says, the challenge is to ensure chartered status remains invaluable to all planners as they establish, grow, and excel in their careers.

What Can Professional Planning Institutes DO?

Professional institutes like RTPI and AICP need to continue to embrace the diverse perspectives of future generations of planners.

The UK government — rather than the focus on perma-reform — needs to ignore Mark Twain’s advice above and urgently address these issues by working with the professional institutes to develop a clear vision for the future of planning practice so that we can all have a cadre of planners with the right skills and of sufficient numbers, properly resourced, working towards delivering a shared goal for planning.

If not, 10 years from now, we will still be reading official reports both in the UK and the U.S., opining about the shortage of professional planners.

Top image: A planning public consultation event held by the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Photo by Peter Geraghty.


About the Author
Peter Geraghty, FRTPI, is director of planning and transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. He was the president of RTPI in 2013–14. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his employers.

November 8, 2019

By Peter Geraghty