"The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it."
The opening years of this decade have been turbulent and uncertain. This has taken its toll on public sector services as in every other aspect of life. Never has the impact on the conditions and well-being of planners been so pronounced and endemic as it is currently.
In a recent APA blog "Finding Meaning in Municipal Careers: Insights from Planning Directors," Ann Forsyth, PhD, raises a number of issues facing public sector planners in the United States:
"Around the country, local planning departments are attempting to hire enough professionals to deal with what in many places is a development boom. This is a challenge. The desire of many city governments to bring employees back to the physical office has come up against workers' desires for flexibility as well as the wide range of options for planning careers."
Challenges Facing U.K. Planners
This has resonance with the current circumstances facing public sector planners throughout the U.K. A recent survey of planners in Wales on behalf of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) highlights an accumulation of factors including technological advances and a desire to reduce commuting, accelerated by the COVID pandemic that has led to a shift to working from home. This has led to benefits and dis-benefits for planners. This is evident from the mixed nature of responses to the Wales survey that the preference to work in the office or from home is very personal.
However, there was a widespread view that not having teams regularly in the office was detrimental to new colleagues, particularly those starting out in their planning career. "The greatest disadvantage of home-working is the genuine loss of opportunity for less experienced staff to benefit from knowledge transfer from more experienced colleagues."
The report quotes one respondent who went so far as to say: "working from home has damaged my mental health, made me feel divorced from colleagues, and divorced from the community we are supposed to serve. Work is much less efficient, less wholesome, less dynamic, less fun, and less rounded than before."
Working from home is not the only change in circumstances affecting U.K. public sector planners. The Wales survey also found: "There was clear evidence that Local Planning Authorities and government bodies experience a considerable amount of abuse or negative incidents: 48.8 percent reporting occasional incidents and 16 percent stated it happened regularly."
The report goes on to say that serious concern has been raised by incidents where planning officers have been physically intimidated. The more widespread use of social media and immediacy of communication channels such as email has exacerbated this trend. The survey reported that 58 percent of respondents said social media had some effect on their well-being. Many regarded social media to have given the public the ability to express their opinions without any recourse (insults and abuse) which impacts upon planners' wellbeing. The report advises that it creates an environment for misinformation and for negative campaigners to skew debate.
The Meeting Housing Demand report by the House of Lords Built Environment Select Committee published in January 2022, emphasised that spending on planning has fallen by 14.6 percent since 2010 causing delays, issues with recruitment, and staff shortages in many authorities.
It found that local planning authorities are under resourced and unable to undertake the skilled planning required to meet the government's housing targets. The House of Lords report went to say: "Any new planning system will only work if local planning authorities have the resources and staff to implement it."
The shortage of trained planners throughout the U.K. continues to be raised as a key issue in report after report. For example, a report published by the Government's National Audit Office in 2019 highlighted the shortage of planners. It pointed out that the number of local authority planning staff fell by 15 percent between 2006 and 2016.
In an opinion piece back in 2019 I cautioned that if we are to meet the challenge of recruiting and retaining sufficient planners, we must make the profession more attractive and raise the status of planners. It is also important to ensure that those who join the profession do not leave it mid-career. Recent research demonstrates that matters have worsened since then, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and the growing use of social media and hostility towards 'authority.'
In England, RTPI research in 2022, on planning enforcement found that enforcement teams at local authorities across England are being stretched to their limits, facing immense pressure from both politicians and the public. Councils are finding it impossible to attract candidates. The talent pool is being drained as low awareness of the profession amongst graduate planners makes it difficult to engage them.
The Local Government Association (LGA) which represents local authorities across England has recently published its 2022 Workforce Survey which lays bare the staff recruitment and retention difficulties in the public sector. The LGA survey also found that almost six in 10 councils (58 percent) are struggling to recruit planning officers and nearly half (45 percent) of councils which run environmental health services were having difficulties recruiting environmental health officers and according to LGA 36 percent of authorities were having problems retaining planners.
This in turn has put pressure on public authorities. The RTPI Wales survey also found high levels of planners being overstretched in their work and this was having an impact on their well-being.
- 61 percent of all respondents reported being overstretched at least several times a week
- 74 percent of LPA officers felt overstretched
- 21 percent of all respondents felt they were overstretched all of the time
It should be a national priority to recruit and retain experienced planning professionals. To provide high quality services you need high quality professional staff and appropriate conditions for them to work in.
As Forsyth points out in her blog, U.S. planners often ask how can I make the greatest difference to my community. Planners practising in the U.K. are driven by similar motivations acting in the public interest. It is part of their professional DNA.
During these turbulent and uncertain times planners understandably look for the meaning in what they do. As Carl Jung has said without meaning even the greatest of things are worthless. Planners instinctively feel their contribution to society is meaningful. Society in return needs to recognise this contribution and the added value the profession brings.
The take away from both sides of the Atlantic is that if we don't look after the profession and the practitioners working within it, particularly those in the public sector, we will all be the worse off for it.
Top image: Peter Geraghty speaks with emerging professional planners.
About the author
Peter Geraghty is the junior vice president of the Planning Officers' Society in England. He previously served as president of the Royal Town Planning Instutitute in 2013.