Skip to main content

Is the planning industry on the verge of something big?

Published on: 11 Mar 2016

As housebuilding and infrastructure booms are in the offing, the planning profession could be on the verge of something big. The Planner’s features editor Simon Wicks takes a look at some of the issues to consider when preparing your next career step.

It may sometimes seem that you just can’t win if you’re a planner. Recommend refusal of a controversial scheme and you’re accused of holding back necessary development. Give the go-ahead and you’re blighting the landscape. If you’ve planned a scheme that proves popular, it’s politicians, architects and developers who get the plaudits.

Planners around the UK and Ireland are having to accommodate substantial changes to their planning systems. In Northern Ireland planning powers are about to be transferred to local authorities, and Wales, too, is debating local government reorganisation. Scotland is pressing for greater spending and administrative powers. In England, planners have had to adjust to the National Planning and Policy Framework (NPPF), the community infrastructure levy (CIL) and the emergence of ‘localism’. Significant reforms to the system in Ireland have also been tabled.

On top of this, local authority planners everywhere have had to contend with stiffer performance targets and austerity measures which, according to the UK National Audit Office, have seen planning department budgets slashed by almost a half since 2010.

Meanwhile we have a housing shortage, high shop vacancy rates in town centres, fraying infrastructure everywhere and a worsening North-South economic divide in England.

Who’d be a planner, eh?

At the RTPI’s Young Planners Conference in late 2014, the TCPA’s head of policy, Hugh Ellis, said we could be about to enter a “golden age of planning”. Why would he say such a thing?

Well, if we are to build the housing and infrastructure the nation needs, we will need planners – lots of them. We’ll need them in local authorities, in housing associations and development corporations, in private consultancies and property developers, in policy teams, advisory bodies and think tanks.

“Before the recession retail was what everyone wanted, but now it's housing and it needs a very specific skill set"

The push for housing

Housing is the single biggest factor that will influence planning recruitment in the UK this year. Experts agree that as a nation we need to build 240,000 houses a year for the next 20 years. The national debate has moved beyond ‘What?’ and is focusing on ‘How?’ and ‘Where?’

Should we infill on brownfield sites in urban areas? Should we push into green belt? Should we build new towns or urban extensions? Who should take the lead in assembling land, master planning and ensuring that obligations are met – local authorities, private developers or urban development corporations?

We’re likely to end up with a mix of all of the above. But such a large national project will require planners with the skills to plot routes through the forest of policy and opinion and set in motion such large and complex projects as Ebbsfleet and Bicester.

“Residential is the big area for us at the moment,” says Kirsty Hall of built environment recruiter KDH Associates. “Before the recession retail was what everyone wanted, but now it’s housing and it needs a very specific skill set. It’s people who have experience of large scale, contentious schemes, particularly where they have complicated affordable housing arrangements.”

But how do we square the desire to build more houses with cuts to planning departments?

Developers themselves are beginning to protest against the lack of resources in planning departments. Housing development, in particular, is a partnership between public and private sectors –and public sector planners are a must.

The big developers are also saying that they can’t meet the nation’s housing targets by themselves because that would require them to double their output. Other players have to come into the market – from small builders to housing associations. Local authorities, too – and some, such as Wandsworth and Enfield, are reversing a long-term trend and building houses once again.

How to adapt?

UK local authority planning departments are facing considerable pressure. Where are planning teams going to get their funding from if their authorities are required to implement further budget cuts, as is the case under the current government's plans?

In Bristol, planning director Zoe Willcox told a conference her team relied on fees from planning applications. This clearly is not sustainable.

In Birmingham, planning director Waheed Nazir restructured his department when his budget was cut by 40 per cent. He did it by collapsing the barriers between planning control, regeneration and economic development to create multidisciplinary teams with responsibility for different parts of the city.

Nazir also initiated the Big City Plan, a 20-year programme to effectively remodel Birmingham centre based on building much closer working relationships between the public and private sectors. This in turn has cut the percentage of planning applications that go to appeal to 3 per cent only.

Meanwhile, the council has turned developer, creating the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust to deliver some of the housing the city needs.

What’s been created in the city is a dynamic, streamlined planning department with a strong focus on partnership and growth, in which enterprising thinkers are likely to flourish. Could this be the new direction of planning departments?

“Developers, funds, institutional investors - they are all seeing the value of having their own planners"

Urban renewal

Hall notes that urban growth outside of London is a developing trend, and observes that many of her private sector clients are expanding their operations in other UK cities.

“Some of my clients are looking outside of London for their next growth opportunities – Birmingham and Bristol in particular.”

We’re also seeing major urban renewal in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and schemes are proposed for Belfast and Cardiff. There is replacement and expansion of commercial space, development of new urban realm.

Urban transport, too, is undergoing a renaissance, with urban designers looking to Europe for inspiration to help them create ‘liveable’ spaces where walking, cycling and public transport take precedence over private cars.

London leads the way with its Crossrail schemes and the accompanying continental-style redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road. Then there are its cycle superhighways, which have inspired similar schemes in Newcastle and Leeds.

Bristol, too, is looking outwards for inspiration and in February 2015 the city’s mayor, George Ferguson, announced talks with Cardiff and Newport about creating a south-west ‘super city’, saying: “I think cities throughout the world are dealing with each other directly, and bypassing national and sub-national governments.”

With discussion in the UK focusing on devolution, we may be on the verge of a new age of city living.

Our growing desire for ‘healthy’ cities, ‘liveable’ cities and ‘smart’ cities could see us transforming urban environments in the coming decades.

For urban designers, there could be boom times ahead. But also health planners, transport specialists, regeneration experts, and so on.

The infrastructure investment

Our urban infrastructure will need to be supported by improved intra-urban infrastructure – new connections linking cities and towns into so-called city regions to help generate a degree of economic activity to rival the commercial dominance of London.

HS2 and the mooted HS3 will be multi-billion pound schemes that will keep transport planners, policymakers and lawyers in business for decades.

Alongside these we’re seeing a reconfiguration of our energy supply, with a greater leaning towards renewables. Wind and wave power, though occasionally controversial, are attracting significant investment for sizeable schemes, particularly in Wales and Scotland. Solar farms are appearing in greater numbers; Hinkley Point C heralds a new age of nuclear power, and then there is fracking. The energy mix is changing – and planners are at the heart of deciding how we create energy security for the 21st century.

But it’s not just the local authorities and the private consultancies that will require planners to shape and manage the growing array of infrastructure schemes across the UK.

“One of the things we’re finding is that there are more client-side roles,” says Hall. “Developers, funds institutional investors – they are seeing the value in having their own planners."

Does a golden age of planning loom? Certainly, the national debate about land use has rarely been so intense. Soon planners may find themselves at the centre of national life in a way unseen since the new town movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Planner cover Guide 2015

To read more from the Planner 2015 Guide to Career Development please click here.