LGA conference: Planners need place at ‘top table’

Royal Town Planning Institute wants council planning chiefs at the most senior level of decision making.

Table meeting

English councils should have chief planning officers or heads of planning at “the most senior level” of decision making, the LGA conference has heard.

Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) chief executive Victoria Hills told conference planners themselves they should gain political nous and a stronger ability to articulate a vision for growth in order to exert more influence within the authorities they serve.

“Planning is the one function that can help deliver almost all the key areas within an authority’s corporate strategy,” said Hills.

“We urge all council chiefs and portfolio holders to recognise this and put in the right structure, so that leaders can make major decisions with full view and proper debate of their spatial dimensions, such as housing, transport, green spaces, energy, and waste infrastructure.

“To restore the status of planning, council planners and planning teams must also be able to articulate the value of placemaking better and show more robustly how they can help to achieve multiple council objectives,” she said.

At the conference, RTPI is launching the second part of a study into the corporate and strategic influence of planning in councils.

In 2018, the RTPI revealed that only 23% of the 212 local authorities it investigated in the UK had a head of planning that reported directly to the chief executive, with 9% of councils having no clear role assigned to the head of the planning service.

A follow-up study in 2019 conducted 15 in-depth interviews with current and past local government senior management staff to confirm that decades of side-lining planning as a strategic function within local government has reduced many councils’ ability to advance their corporate agenda and tackle social, economic, and environmental challenges effectively.

The report praises Plymouth city council’s corporate strategy and Ceredigion county council’s development group for putting planning leadership and expertise at the heart of the of corporate investment and development programmes.

Now, RTPI is calling for new legislation to follow Scotland’s example, to make chief planning Officer a statutory function within councils in England in order to better protect planning departments and provide the necessary joined-up thinking for investment decisions to deliver positive, long-term outcomes.

RTPI also wants to see chief planning officers becoming more involved with accredited planning schools in planning education and career development.

From next year, RTPI will launch HOPE (Heads of Planning Everywhere), an annual summit of heads of planning.

Hills told conference: “To ramp up the conversation, I’ll use the convening role of the RTPI to bring together a group of the largest heads of planning chiefs from across England, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, in an annual meeting, commencing in 2020, following the launch of the RTPI’s 2020-2030 Corporate Strategy.

“We’ll discuss best practice, making the case for resourcing planning and the important role of putting planning at the heart of local government delivery for the quality places that people want to live in,” she said.