Craig McLaren, Director of RTPI Scotland, discusses the need to better resource the planning service at a time of ongoing budget reductions
The Improvement Service has recently published its 2016/17 Annual Local Government Benchmarking Framework (LGBF) and it is sober reading for planners. The LGBF is pulled together though Scotland’s councils working together to report standard information on the services they provide to local communities. This information covers how much councils spend on particular services and, where possible, service performance.
Usefully the LGBF recognises the important role that planning plays in saying that “although spend on planning accounts for a relatively small amount of overall spend, this is a strategically important area in terms of the future development and use of land in our towns, cities and countryside. An efficient and well-functioning planning service plays an important role in facilitating sustainable economic growth and delivering high quality development in the right places.”
It reports that the cost of the planning service per application has fallen from £5,376 in 2010/11 to £4,635 in 2016/17 and that this reflects a real terms reduction of 13.8%. It points out that although there have been fluctuations across the period, the trend represents a 33.4% reduction in gross expenditure, albeit with a 22.7% reduction in planning applications since 2010/11. This is one of the sharpest reductions in costs across all local government services. It also goes on to say that in the last year, costs have reduced by 5.5%, reflecting a 11.5% reduction in gross expenditure, with a further 6.3% reduction in planning applications. Reducing costs is generally seen as a good thing, but if you view it within the context of RTPI research which shows a 23% decrease in planning staff between 2009 and 2016 it perhaps demonstrates that these are coming about due to staff cuts. This could be having an impact on the ability to provide an effective service.
RTPI Scotland has also discovered that, according Scottish Government figures, provisional outturns show that the amount of local authority budget spent directly on development management and development planning is a mere 0.44% in 2016-17, and this is predicted fall to 0.4% in 2017-18.
At a time when the Planning Bill is about to be scrutinised in Parliament, these figures show that there is an urgent need to make the case for increasing investment in the planning service. This is especially true given that the Financial Memorandum accompanying the draft Bill could be read as saying that that there will be savings of up to £31.5m from introducing a ten year Local Development Plan (LDP). It should be made clear that these will not be savings. This is essentially an accounting exercise recognising that the statutory duty to produce a LDP will be reduced from 5 years to 10 years. The resources should be used to ensure that the plan is delivered, as per the ambitions of the planning review . This change cannot and should not be used as another excuse to reduce staffing numbers in planning authorities.
We are at the stage where dis-investment is having an impact. If we want to ensure, as the LGBF says, that the “planning service plays an important role in facilitating sustainable economic growth and delivering high quality development in the right places” we need to stop treating it a Cinderella service. Local authorities need to see its true value and realise that the service needs new investment.
This is one of the reasons why RTPI Scotland has launched our #PlanningAhead campaign to highlight examples from across Scotland that show how planning is working with communities and other professions to overcome the challenges that Scotland faces. But, we believe that we need to make it easier for planners to deliver these successes. This means making sure that the Planning Bill, and changes to policy and guidance that follow it, help to reposition the planning system and ensure that it is properly resourced. We have highlighted just six examples but we know that there are many more out there and would ask you to think about sharing your #planningahead success stories on Twitter.