Councils have for many years had to grapple with the challenge of recruiting and retaining town planners. One of the primary problems has been that there is a well-developed private planning sector which commonly offers better pay, more sociable hours a more varied workload with generally satisfied and appreciative customers.
On the other hand, council planning departments are often lumbered with a pay system that rewards the number of people you manage over and above the expertise you may have. Pay and conditions tend to be determined by one size fits all HR policies which don’t recognise market pressures and can’t be varied for one particular group of employees, however unique their skills may be.
For many council planners much of their work is technically undemanding small-scale development control work. This is a fairly thankless domestic work where the planner is usually the butt of generally ill-informed public criticism. Those that get to work on bigger more strategic schemes often have a big case load and the delights of operating in a highly politicised environment, made harder by lacking the resources to effectively negotiate with large expert teams developers field on major applications.
The plight of council planning departments is often made worse due to the most able council planners being attracted to the private sector by both pay and working experience with no real flow of expertise the other way.
But some progressive local authorities are now setting up arm’s length companies to help speed up their delivery of new housing and to establish a more commercial approach to development activity freed of some of the constraints that come with being part of a multipurpose municipal body. The inclusion of responsibility within this type of company has a number of potential advantages, particularly in terms of being able to retain and recruit the best planning professionals.
Arm’s length companies have the ability to pay salaries that are more competitive with the wider market and to offer a working environment that will attract people from private sector planning consultants. Arm’s length companies are also able to offer the ideal mix of public sector values in the way they treat people with competitive salaries and flexible working conditions which allow people to work part time, work in term time only work remotely etc. etc. in way difficult for many employers to offer.
Some of these arms length companies are also being set up to do direct development so they will increasingly be able to offer planners experience on the developer rather than planning authority side during their career in the organisation. Some will also provide the opportunity to provide consultancy services to other developers or even other boroughs and other public bodies.
Arms length companies that carry out development control and other planning functions on a contractual basis for their parent authorities are currently fairly rare but the model offers huge potential to deal with one of the fundamental problems which has hampered housing delivery in England over the last thirty years, namely the ability to recruit, retain and develop the best planning professionals.
Planning, unlike many other local government professions, has a direct transferability to the private sector. Arm’s length companies are able to structure themselves much more like a planning consultancy and offer employment packages every bit as attractive and workloads every bit as varied as the private sector.
Pat Hayes is managing director of development and regeneration company Be First.