Lack of skilled staff threatens reforms

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week May 2008

A war is raging among Britain’s planners. Not the familiar skirmishing with developers where no prisoners are taken but fierce internal battles which aim to kidnap as many as possible.  Local authorities are groaning under the weight of their heaviest workload in 50 years as the whole system of local planning is reshaped, but they cannot find the right people to do the job.

  Many depend heavily on short-contract Australians ‘doing’ Europe. Most authorities in the South East would collapse without them, Lynne Anderson, a consultant to the Planning Officers Society, told a committee of MPs looking into planning delays.

  Lack of experienced officers is one reason for the snail-like progress in new local plans, which are constantly being referred back by government inspectors for revision. It has also forced local authorities to rely on simplistic ‘box ticking’ treatment of planning applications by juniors.  This does not bode well for plans to double housebuilding within a decade. They already look doomed as development crumbles under the weight of the property collapse. Imagination, flexibility and wit will be needed to take up some of the slack through regeneration, and these are rare among box tickers.

  Marc Dorfman has won plaudits for getting London’s first local core strategy approved when most are bogged down but the chief planning officer for Redbridge Borough is gloomy about building on his success.  The council has pioneered ‘front loading’  - detailed negotiations to sort out issues such as section 106 agreements before applications are submitted rather than face endless disputes later. But this demands sophisticated skills which are in short supply, he told the Henry Stewart Annual Planning Briefing.

 He is in ‘constant war’ with private consultants and other local authorities to attract bright young planners. This will get worse as experienced officers retire or burn out after years of relentless pressure. Even if he can get the numbers, today’s graduates steeped in social and economic issues do not have the skills of previous generations of architect planners.

  Elected members also carry some responsibility. They must learn that planning is not just about saying ‘no’, he said. The British Property Federation wants to go further. Councillors should be trained in the economics of development, it told the committee of MPs.

  Planners could see some relief from overwork under proposals to eliminate smaller developments which make up the vast bulk of applications. Many are already kept out of the system because the general permitted development order [GPDO] rules that planning permission is not required if, for instance, home extensions are kept below 15% of existing volume.  But many get caught up in bureaucracy because of rows over what constitutes original volume. Is it when a home was built or after subsequent extensions which may have been added 50 years ago?

   A new GPDO is planned following research by consultant White Young Green which allows application-free development that does not create a significant impact on surroundings – subject to other conditions such conservation issues and proximity to roads and neighbours. But problems have emerged to delay change. WYG was sent back to make a special study of issues such as how to treat basements. It could be some time before pressure is eased on local authorities and a truce can be called in the planning wars.


As greenfield sites become rare and housebuilding tails off, planners will be forced to show more flexibility to increase accommodation within towns and cities. They are already struggling to cope with basement extensions, as extending downwards becomes cheaper than finding a bigger home. High value areas of west London have grabbed attention but digging is also under way in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.

  Complaints from neighbours has spurred the borough of Kensington & Chelsea to consider restricting development under its new local plan. Other councils raise barriers such as worries about subsidence and flooding. But changes in the GPDO could lead to a rush of extra digging because basements have minimal impact on surroundings, barrister Robert Fookes told the Henry Stewart Annual Planning Briefing. This will test the independence of a proposed new appeal system run by councillors, as complaints of construction disturbance are not valid planning objections and flood risk is reduced by removing a chunk of the ground.

  Ministers commissioned an investigation by consultant White Young Green which has yet to be sent out for consultation. Change seems likely as the government has sees an easy solution to extra accommodation, pointing to countries such as Germany where 10,000 prefabricated basements are produced every year.

  Less radical ideas will also test planners’ imagination, including transforming commercial buildings and smaller homes.  Architects Stuart Piercy and Richard Connor proposed solving the crisis back in 2000 by creating ‘microflats’ with fold-away beds and kitchens. But not one has been approved because they ‘did not tick the right boxes’ with planners.

   Consultant Nick de Lotbiniere says small flats are encouraged as part of mixed developments but planners have been fixated on the minimum size of 45sq m, which is about a third larger than proposed for microflats. At least London planners must open their minds to conversion of commercial buildings. Restrictions to employment use are being removed from local plans and precedence given to the Greater London Plan drive for residential.