Part 2: Are we seeing a revival of public sector planning?

Local authority planning roles are diversifying, councils are delivering services in more innovative ways and borrowing caps have been lifted. are we seeing a reanimation of public sector planning in the UK? Francesca Perry reports

Catalysed by the creeping stigmatisation of the public planner since the 1980s, we have relied on the private sector for the past three decades or so, even more so since the introduction in 2010 of austerity policies that led to steep decreases in central government funding to public planning departments.

But change may well be afoot. Austerity – as a professed policy – has fallen out of favour and the government is speaking more positively about planning as an instrument for solving the housing crisis. There is also a broader awareness that the status quo is inadequate for addressing the big challenges of our generation, such as climate change and inequality, and that a greater sense of public purpose is required.

Something seems to be happening in response. But what – and how?

Austerity innovation

Thousands of jobs have been lost as funding has haemorrhaged from public planning departments. Remaining public planners, many of whom had forged their careers amid increasing fragmentation of the profession into siloed, technical roles, were forced to take on more responsibilities, often cutting across multiple council functions.

Although the changes were challenging, austerity has arguably forced public planning to blend separated planning functions into wider, more inclusive roles.

“Historically, planning was very separate from other local government functions,” explains Jo Negrini MRTPI, Croydon Council chief executive and an urban planner. “Planning departments used to be focused on policy and development control – it was a much more passive approach. At Croydon, we think planners should be involved in everything else going on in the council.”

This sentiment is echoed by Heather Claridge MRTPI, a principal planning officer at Glasgow City Council and the RTPI’s Young Planner of the Year 2018. “There is an increased recognition within the public sector that no one department can address place-based problems alone,” she says. “There is now more joined-up working between planning, housing and economic development – and some ambitious projects emerging.”

Finn Williams, a former planner at the Greater London Authority and co-founder of Public Practice, agrees. “Local authorities are realising they need to build back in more agency, be more cross-cutting and be smart with limited resources,” he says.

The very existence of Public Practice is an indication that change is needed. A not-for-profit social enterprise, it places design-led built environment experts within local authorities looking for increased planning and placemaking capacity.

Momentum is building, says Negrini, pointing out that the role of local government in regeneration has changed dramatically, even in the past five years. More councils, for example, are building homes and developments themselves. “Councils are becoming a lot more entrepreneurial, pursuing agendas that are appropriate for the places they serve,” she says.

Williams stresses that “councils have to get on the front foot” to survive in a demanding political and commercial environment. “They’re realising they need to use their assets more intelligently,” he says.

Croydon has its own award-winning development company, Brick by Brick, set up in 2016 to deliver homes for local residents. But authorities as far afield as York and Dorset are delivering homes, too.

One stimulus for change has been a growing frustration with private sector dominance over planning and development in the UK. “Our reliance on the private sector to deliver has made people realise its limitations,” comments Williams. “There’s a whole generation of practitioners who realise that working to a commercial brief is limiting their ability to do the kind of planning that motivated them to enter the profession in the first place.

“In the public sector, planners can have far more impact and create many more benefits – socially, environmentally and economically – than in the private sector.”

Charlotte Morphet MRTPI, principal policy planner at Waltham Forest Council and co-founder of Women in Planning, agrees that the sector is attracting new talent: “Councils are building again and have their confidence back. I think that is why so many planners are making the switch [from private to public], as there are such interesting opportunities to shape places for the better.”

All around, there are signs of an emerging reappraisal of the idea of the ‘public good’, and the role of both the public and private sectors in creating and maintaining this. But are we giving the public sector the tools it needs – financially, politically, and in terms of skills and knowledge?

At University College London, a new master’s degree in public administration (MPA) is set to provide a counterbalance to the classic MBA (master of business administration), suggesting that the ideological pendulum is shifting back towards ‘public’ again, as opposed to ‘private’. As Anna Rose, head of the Planning Advisory Service, observes: “I think it took a while for the penny to drop that if local authorities fail, everybody fails.”

Francesca Perry is founder and editor of Thinking City

Image credit | Shutterstock

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