Should we have a statutory Chief Planning Officer in local authorities?

RTPI Director Craig McLaren makes the case.

We need to make sure that strategic decisions taken by local authorities and Community Planning Partnerships are not taken in isolation. The implications of new investment and new development need to be assessed and planned for.  Given this, in a thinkpiece published today by RTPI Scotland proposes that the forthcoming Planning Bill establishes a statutory Chief Planning Officer (CPO) in each local authority.

This is not a bid to ensure that planners ‘have a seat at the top table’ in local authorities. Rather it is to make sure that our cities, towns, villages and communities are planned properly. Our proposal will allow local authorities to ensure that the medium- and long-term implications of policy decisions and investments are fully considered at a corporate level through examining subsequent infrastructure needs, their medium- and long-term ramifications and their impact beyond the immediate area.

The concept of a statutory Chief Officer for a specific local authority function is not new. There are other models of statutory Chief Officers in Scottish local authorities, namely the Chief Social Worker and the Chief Education Officer.  We envisage that, in line with the Chief Social Worker and Chief Education Officer, the post holder would need to be professionally qualified. This would ensure that they had the skills, knowledge and expertise to advise on the planning implications of policy and investment decisions made by local authorities.

The CPO would not need to be appointed at a specific tier or level within the local authority.  That should be at the discretion of each council.  The important aspect of the CPO role is that the person in that position is consulted early in the strategic policy/ investment process to ensure that their planning expertise is considered corporately. They should ensure the provision of appropriate professional advice in the discharge of a local authority’s statutory functions and participation in strategic planning.  This should include:

  • the development, consultation on, and delivery of the community plan;
  • the development, consultation on, and delivery of the Local Outcome Improvement Plan;
  • the management and strategic assets under the control of the Community Planning Partnership; and,
  • the management of the community planning partners’ estates including health, education facilities, childcare, community facilities and roads and transport.

The key role of the CPO would be to provide advice to the local authority as a whole on the implications of decisions and investments in the short, medium and longer term.  Given this, there should be an obligation for other key officers to consult with the CPO on key strategic decisions, at an early stage.

We do not see the establishment of CPOs as necessarily leading to the establishment of new posts, nor do we see any financial implications for councils.  This is because councils will be able to determine that an existing officer meets the statutory requirements and could take up the positions.

We believe that this will result in a better planned approach to service delivery and development, with benefits for both places and people.

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