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Place Skills | Rage against the machine

Posted 07/08/2018

by Olivia Bostock

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In a piece for Place North West Olivia Bostock of Iceni looks through the filter of Microfiche to scrutinise the challenges facing recruitment in public sector planning departments.

Only four years ago I remember a friend telling me she was considering pursuing a Masters degree in planning and thinking “Planning? It’s a no from me!” Well, more fool you, Bostock. You are now finalising your Masters after returning to planning and you’re loving it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Having spent a few years outside of property, I came into my Masters with a very clear image of what I wanted to gain from my studies and how I envisaged my career beyond it. I knew that it would involve the private sector; however, I recognised the importance of the public sector within the system and took on a short placement with my local council.

Something that stuck with me was my introduction to Microfiche – a device used to magnify microfilm documents – unfortunately, more for its ability to induce sea sickness than anything else. A ‘technology’ that I had never had to face before, Microfiche became a daily routine as I searched through the non-digital records in response to permitted development enquiries and slowly attempted to assist with digitising historic applications.

I had a wonderful experience at the council, learning an incredible amount and working with great mentors and planners. However, Microfiche to me became symbolic; it represents the struggles of local authority planning departments – teams of brilliant planners, who are under-resourced and struggling for time, who rather than being supported by a streamlined processes, must contend with searching through paper archives and Microfiche films.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to most, to hear there is no funding for the digitalisation of historic records or the provision of additional staff. What did surprise me, was the struggle to employ planners when funding was available, particularly those at a graduate/planner level.

Thinking more on this and reflecting on conversations with friends, maybe it isn’t at all surprising. Graduates are bombarded with career schemes at glossy, well-branded organisations, complete with generous salaries, benefits packages, the latest technologies, and in some cases, a new car.

How can councils possibly compete? They’re often based in tired buildings, with aged technology, lower salaries, and development structures that for the most part pay more for the longevity of your service, as opposed to your ability. Something I felt removed my ability to shape and drive my own career. I would however say, that city councils can often be the exception to this; a notable example being Birmingham.

Our planning system depends on the public sector, so if we turn a blind eye to the recruitment issues in local authorities, we are only making our lives more difficult. What happens when there are more leaving and retiring from the council, than there are new planners coming in to replace them? Without new planners joining the authorities, what will happen to the extensive knowledge that the existing planners have to share?

One solution could be found in increasing public-private partnerships. I remember the shock I felt seeing that Urban Vision have 40 planning officers – in a local authority! But then I remembered, it isn’t a local authority, it’s the ‘sexier’ regeneration-led partnership. It forms an extension of the planning department, whilst providing a private sector working environment, through private funding and government contracts.

While the Urban Vision contract with Capita is now at an end, the principle stands. The partnership attracted the recruits, and provided the salaries, benefits, brand image and overall private sector gleam, whilst supporting the public planning function.

An alternative partnership concept could be sought between the local authorities and planning consultancies.Understanding the process from a local authority perspective is an invaluable experience. Learning the nuances of policy, the mindset for evaluating applications and experiencing the additional pressures all feeds into providing a clearer understanding of the system. Secondments between the local authorities and planning consultancies could provide support to the council and training for consultancy staff.

Or, is it simply a case of restructuring? Following an evaluation of the multi-tiered authorities, could it then lead to the consolidation of planning services into one team, allowing for the streamlining of funding and resources?

So here I am, an ‘accidental planner’, now encouraging its consideration as a career option. Whichever form this takes, we all need to be thinking about how to encourage people into planning, particularly at the local authority level. Primarily, because of the potential impact of a lack of recruitment, but also as local authorities could be key in encouraging young people into this career.