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Clive Betts: Planner shortage risking poor advice for architects

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Labour MP Clive Betts, chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, discusses planning reform and staff shortages

Five years ago your committee warned that a shortage of planning officers was threatening house building and regeneration targets. Why are leading architects complaining of a similar shortage now? We did a report in the last Parliament and as a result things did improve. There was an effort to improve planning officers’ skills. The difference now is that councils are facing spending cuts. Councils are trying to protect front line services but – mistakenly – planning is often seen as a back-office service that can take a disproportionate share of spending cuts. It is also often the case that more senior staff will go for voluntary redundancy in these situations.

Why is the 12.6 per cent drop in local authority planning officers between 2010 and 2012 causing problems for architects? You end up with smaller departments. These have fewer resources and fewer experienced and qualified staff. The risk is that architects get insufficient advice and private investors and developers get messed around. 

What are the long-term dangers for councils? Most local authorities are between a rock and hard place and councils are mistaking their planning department for a back-room service – ultimately this will shape environments in the future. If we get an upturn in construction projects, which we all hope is going to happen, that could be a real challenge for some planning departments.

Why are so many architects still calling for planning reform more than a year after the NPPF? Irrespective of any political view about planning reform itself, any change at all creates a learning process period. There is a new framework in place, so planning departments are going to have to think about that and it may well slow down decision-making.

How will Parliament know whether planning reform has succeeded? We have already agreed that we will look at how the planning changes have been implemented in April next year. Architects have to give it some time to bed in.

Is there anything that can be done to help the situation in the short term? Probably not, realisticly.

Is the planning officer shortage dampening economic recovery? There is no evidence of the claim that a lack of planning approval is holding anything up. There are enough planning approvals in housing to keep us going for several years. There is no evidence it is holding house building up, or that it is an obstacle to growth in the economy.





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