09 Jan 2023

Planning agencies: an alternative approach to public sector planning

Planning delivery has been a hot topic for a number of years now, with more and more being demanded of planning services. Whether it is in combating climate change, the housing crisis or delivering the Levelling Up agenda, planning has been placed at the centre of some of the most critical challenges facing the nation.

Politicians, local authorities, and communities are demanding change and development at a vast scale. However, this is in a time where services have faced significant budget cuts that have resulted in recruitment, skills, and performance challenges for public sector planning.

In the face of these challenging times, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) decided to explore both the effects of these sustained funding cuts as well as potential solutions to some of the challenges facing public sector planning, looking for inspiration both in England and further afield.

Damaging Data

We undertook our own data analysis which detailed how Local Authority net expenditure on planning has fallen by 43 per cent, from £844m in 2009/10 to £480m in 2020/21. This amounts to just 0.45 per cent of local government budgets allocated to planning services. The fall in public spending has not been even across the country either, with the North East of England facing a 62 per cent fall in funding whilst Yorkshire and The Humber (49 per cent) and the North West (46 per cent) have also faced significant cuts.

These cuts have had a clear effect on the performances of planning services, with less than half (49 per cent) of planning applications were decided within statutory time limits in 2021 – continuing a downwards trend since 2010. Our data analysis paints a concerning picture for the future for public sector planning, which has undoubtedly had a knock on effect upon recruitment, retention, and staff morale.

Looking for inspiration

Following these findings we explored two different models of public sector planning, to better understand how a more cooperative approach to public sector planning could improve resourcing, skills, and resiliency.

The first model that we explored was the French model of Agences d’ Urbanisme or ‘Urban Planning Agencies’ (UPA). The French model is built around multidisciplinary teams that offer support for planning services over wide areas. We interviewed a number of key figures from UPAs who outlined how their work was held in high esteem and focused upon wider strategic objectives, helping to develop deep knowledge of their regions, places and specialist expertise.

Alongside UPAs we explored the shared services model utilised by some local authorities in England. In particular we looked into the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning service (GCSP) which combined the planning teams of South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council in 2018.

The bringing together of two planning teams allowed the GCSP to process over 6,000 planning applications every year with a team of over 143 staff. These two models of UPAs and GCSP both highlighted the benefits of pooling together resources to create more resilient teams with a wider range of skills and specialisms.

Planning agencies

A planning agency is a voluntary shared services model for local planning authorities to bring to their planning teams together, pooling resources, offering multidisciplinary support, and developing expertise and capacity at a sub-regional level.

It is important to understand that each planning agency would look different and as a result there is no one template structure that they should follow. Instead, they should react to the challenges and opportunities within their local area and be established around a need to serve their communities with a more efficient and resilient planning system.

We expect that planning agencies would:
Develop planning skills and professionals

They would be prestigious, reaching a wider pool of talent and facilitating career growth, opportunities for development and mentorship through its larger structure. Their multidisciplinary approach would also help to support less visible disciplines of planning under a larger umbrella.

Develop expertise and local knowledge

They would commission research, gather, and utilise local data, deliver technical and specialist knowledge and generate added value from geospatial data and environmental assessments.

Respond effectively to leaders and the community’s needs

They’d maintain accountability, operating under the most appropriate governance structures for their area and could be given strong leadership through a chief planning officer. They’d also encourage collaborative responses to local challenges. interact with residents, business and community groups and build resilient networks and relationships.

Underpin place-based action

They’d maximise and share resources more equitably and help to address key challenges like socio-economic inequality, adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change and delivering the infrastructure needed to make developments more sustainable for new and existing residents. They could develop interventions at scale and take a holistic, solutions-focused approach

Across our research, it is clear a change is needed to help local planning authorities play a central role in shaping our future. Our data analysis highlighted both the scale of the challenge and the need to approach these issues with a new solution. These challenges that face planning, and in particular public sector planning, cannot be solved with yesterday’s thinking, instead we need to create new solutions to these challenges.

Whilst funding is a critical element of planning, and a priority for the RTPI, we have identified how alternative approaches to public sector planning can begin to deliver significant benefits for planners, planning teams and the system as a whole.

Written by Harry Steele

Harry is an infrastructure specialist at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)