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Is our planning system on the brink of collapse?

27 January 2023

By Matilda Hartwig

Our planning system is currently struggling with a very human problem – burnout – which is causing a headache for many planning departments, stifling investment and removing local knowledge from local planning decisions.

As the country’s planning backlog continues to grow at a local and national level, councils are warning of a staffing crisis, while PINs union members are going on strike due to pay. UK planning departments across the country are finding it difficult to recruit and retain staff, as reports grow of planning experts leaving the public sector for the private for better pay and working conditions.

Without meaningful investment and cultural reform, the economy and our local communities will be hit hard. As we continue to manage the ongoing energy, housing affordability and cost-of-living crises, we need an efficient planning system to ensure we can give local business certainty, and deliver new homes and green energy projects across the country. However, the manpower behind our planning system is reportedly under-resourced, underpaid and increasingly unmotivated.

Bristol City Council argues that its economy is being severely affected because its planning department has ‘effectively ground to a halt.’ Local businesses, charities and residents are having to wait for more than four months before they are assigned a planning officer, which the Mayor of Bristol says is an unseen consequence of more than a decade of Government cuts. One well-known Bristol charity has warned it will start losing £5,000 a month on a new shop it was unable to open because its planning application is still waiting to be determined; showing the dire consequences this is having on our already struggling local high streets.

“Demoralising”, “miserable”, and “depressing” are just some of the words planning officers have confidentially used to describe working in planning departments on the podcast 50 Shades of Planning. As more and more planning experts leave local authorities, councils are being forced to hire contractors to help deal with their growing application backlog. This is leaving planning decisions in the hands of people who aren’t familiar with the local area and in some cases haven’t even visited the site. As this becomes a more frequent occurrence, local knowledge is becoming almost totally removed from local planning decisions, which could lead to poor planning outcomes for the community.

At a national level, Planning Inspectorate union members have voted to hold a series of strikes next month, with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities staff also expected to follow suit. While we do not know the extent of the disruption planned, we can expect this to lead to substantial determination delays for major infrastructure projects, new renewable energy proposals and more.

The UK Government has previously focused on “red-tape” cutting reforms to speed up the planning system, however, this latest skills shortage and morale crisis will be difficult to tackle without meaningful investment and cultural reform at a local and national level.