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Can more planning officers really get Britain building again?

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Can more planning officers really get Britain building again?

Written by Harry Gilham

The issue of housebuilding in the UK has been a major issue on the political agenda over the past decade. A failure to build sufficient homes across the country has put incredible pressure on both the availability and affordability of housing. A fundamental overhaul of the planning system was attempted by Boris Johnson’s Government but ended in complete failure.

Politicians have recently started to propose more incremental changes to the planning system rather than revolutionary reforms. One such policy that started gaining traction over the summer and has continued to see further commitments is on hiring more planning officers to help speed up the process. So, what impact will more planning officers have on the sector?

Local authority budgets have been slashed since 2010, with planning departments seeing drastic cuts. The National Audit Office published figures over the summer that suggested the value of net spending on planning and development services in 2010-11 would be worth about £2.4bn today. The budgeted net spend for planning and development in the 2023-24 fiscal year is just over £1.6bn, so an £800m annual real terms cut.

This means there are fewer planning officers in the system dealing with more applications. The net result of this is much slower times for major applications to get to committee once submitted. Official figures show that four out of five big applications are now being delayed by up to two years, a far cry from the 13 weeks that councils are supposed to give developers decisions by.

The Government started moving on this issue earlier this year, running a consultation on increasing planning fees to fund more planning officers. Among developers and businesses, support for higher fees on major projects stood at 62%, presumably as they hope paying more might lead to a better service and quicker times for major applications getting to a decision committee. Michael Gove over the summer said the Government would be setting up a specialist Whitehall team of planners to help in local authorities with most need.

At Labour’s Party conference, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves made a pledge to hire 300 more planning officers funded by increasing the stamp duty surcharge on foreign property owners. The logic behind this is obvious, planning departments are woefully under-resourced, in which more planning officers will help get shovels in the ground quicker by speeding up the process of getting to planning committee.

However, upon closer examination, are 300 more planning officers going to shift the dial much?

The most recent data suggests that 300 more planning officers will have a negligible impact on speeding up development delivery. Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) research in 2019 showed there were around 10,500 planners employed by local authorities. There are 382 local planning authorities in the UK.

Research from the RTPI on the numbers of planners employed by local authorities in 2017-2018 found on average, there were 24 planners, including policy planners. This figure is likely even lower five years on, given the steady trickle of planning staff to the better-paid private sector. More recent analysis suggests that fewer than one in ten local authority planning departments are fully staffed. This means 300 new planning staff spread across the UK’s 382 under pressure local authorities isn’t that much at all.

The Labour Party clearly has the right intent here, but 300 officers should be seen as a start. It is likely that this figure was quoted as the overall optics look good, but most of the public won’t understand what 300 officers really represents. Labour are also being extremely careful not to make spending commitments they know they cannot fund.

It is also worth noting that more planning officers won’t change the requirements for housebuilders to do meaningful community engagement. Housebuilders still need to do this, and where Labour have gained councils in England in the past couple of years, they have stood on platforms asking for more, not less, public consultation. To have the best chance of success at planning committee, housebuilders must deliver meaningful community and stakeholder engagement. They need to know what issues the public and politicians have from an early stage so that they can take steps to address them before any application gets to committee.

Whilst having more planning officers at local authority level will help speed the planning process up, to what extent is wholly dependent on the numbers hired. In order to really make a difference, this number will need to be much, much higher to truly reap the benefits in faster housing delivery times. With a General Election on the horizon, a Labour party victory would mean timelines for new planning officers arriving is likely going to be 2026 at the earliest. Budgets need to be passed; new planners will need to be trained; and getting Britain building again may take years. There is no quick fix, but the industry can take hope that practical solutions to planning reform are being proposed by the Labour Party.   

  • Labour is looking closely at what needs to be done to boost housebuilding, though announcements such as hiring 300 new planning officers show they are being careful not to promise reforms that will cost significant sums of money.
  •  Given there are some 382 local authorities in the UK, the number of planning officers will need to be significantly increased to truly speed up housing delivery times.
  • Developers still need to ensure they deliver meaningful community engagement and know what matters to local political stakeholders well in advance of going to planning committee.
  • An increase in planning officers will take some time; budgets need to be passed, hiring processes initiated and training for new staff needs to be completed.

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