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London councils axe placemaking staff by a quarter

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Councils in the capital have slashed their planning and built environment staff numbers by a quarter in just two years, new research published by the London Mayor’s Office has revealed

The Greater London Authority’s 2018 Place Shaping Capacity Survey revealed a 24 per cent drop in headcount in key disciplines since 2016.

According to the research, which is carried out every two years to determine the boroughs’ ’place-shaping capacity’, public realm development teams in the capital shrank on average from six people to two, while regeneration and economic development departments typically shed five members of staff.

More than a third of the councils surveyed said they lacked confidence that their capacity was sufficient to ensure good growth in their borough.

The lack of in-house skills was highlighted by the fact that some 94 per cent of London councils now use agency staff at some point to meet their placemaking needs.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ’Years of budget cuts to local authorities have decimated planning departments across the country. While initiatives such as Public Practice in London are helping to attract more talented professionals into the public sector, what we really need is a properly resourced planning system.’

Years of budget cuts to local authorities have decimated planning departments across the country

Almost half of London councils have secured new posts since the recent increase in planning fees but half of these roles are temporary and most are concerned with processing, rather than strategic duties.

Although funding is a key concern, councils’ biggest barrier to hiring more staff is the difficulty he have attracting talent. The proportion of local authorities reporting trouble retaining staff has doubled in four years.

Public Practice - a social enterprise that places built environment experts from the private sector into state-funded bodies - estimated there were currently 287 vacant posts across London planning departments.

Co-founder Finn Williams said: ’We are only just waking up to the potential for local government to play a more proactive part in building the homes and neighbourhoods the country needs. Councils have the public purpose and the powers to help tackle the housing crisis. Now they need the people. 

’This isn’t simply a case of giving planning authorities more funding. With traditional recruitment failing, too much money is being squandered on agency staff. Public practice is offering councils an alternative and affordable route to bring a new pool of talent into the public sector. We’re already seeing how this is building their in house capacity for proactive planning, over the longer-term.’

Meanwhile, the number of design review panels in place in London’s boroughs grew by three in the two years, to a total of 21 in 2018.

But fewer than 1 per cent of planning applications were reviewed. And only four in 10 panels said they regularly checked the outcomes of their reviews.

Housing-led mixed-use schemes were the most frequently reviewed.

Survey findings at a glance

  • More than a third (38 per cent) of London local authorities are not confident, or only partially confident, that their organisation’s place-shaping capacity is sufficient to ensure the delivery of good growth
  • On average, place-shaping staffing has dropped by 24 per cent in the last four years, with the sharpest decline in staff allocated to more strategic areas such as regeneration, public realm or delivering capital projects.
  • Significant contrasts are evident across London in terms of staffing levels: for example, one borough reported nine conservation officers, while many reported they had none.
  • The increase in chargeable planning fees has allowed nearly half of boroughs to secure new posts (evenly split between permanent and temporary) but most of these are processing planning applications, rather than strategic planning.
  •  About 90 per cent of boroughs frequently use agency staff – an increase of 7 per cent over the last four years.
  • More than 80 per cent of authorities reported difficulties retaining placemaking staff, more than double the number in 2014.
  • Design review provision is increasing with 21 boroughs having design review in place, up from 18  in 2016. Another six are currently in development.
  • Boroughs which have no design review are: Bexley, Bromley, Westminster, Ealing, Brent, Hillingdon.
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