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Local Planning Authorities: Staffing

Volume 836: debated on Monday 12 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the levels of staffing in planning departments in local planning authorities.

The Government regularly engage with local authorities. We understand that they, as well as the wider planning sector, face capacity and capability challenges that have resulted in delays, including in the processing of planning applications. To address this, we have developed a comprehensive planning capability and capacity programme which provides direct support, delivers funding to local government, provides upskilling opportunities for existing planners and further develops the future pipeline into the profession.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I would just raise two points with her. First, there may be additional funding coming into the system, but is she confident that this will lead to an increase in staffing capacity? Even if it does, given that staffing has reduced by 25% in the last nine years, does she feel that staffing of planning departments is adequate to not only deal with planning applications but with the new responsibilities around biodiversity net gain and providing local plans?

My Lords, we think that the staffing in local planning authorities needs to increase. We have provided several routes for that to happen, including the planning skills delivery fund, which is worth £29 million. In December, we announced the first 180 local authorities to get funding from that, and there will be further allocations this spring. We have also increased planning fees by 25%, and up to 30% for major applications, and made provision for that to be indexed in future years. The pipeline is not just about funding; it is also about skills, which is why we have put in place support for master’s programmes and an improved pipeline for getting people into planning and helping them upskill in the specific skills the noble Lord mentioned once they are there.

My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend has just said. Does she accept—I am sure she does—that shortages in planning departments and changes in planning skills are causing considerable delays, and that that is unfair to claimants who are seeking planning consent and can often cause considerable expense to them?

My Lords, we recognise this as a source of delays. In addition to the planning skills delivery fund, we have put in place the “planning super-squad”, backed by £13 million of funding. It deploys teams of specialists into planning authorities to accelerate the delivery of homes and developments.

My Lords, it certainly will not wash that, after 13 years of cuts, including to these departments, the Government then in the last two years start to increase it slightly. It will not compensate anything near what has been lost to local authorities in their planning and other departments.

My Lords, one of the things we have done in our recent changes is make provision for the indexing of planning fees going forward. That will ensure not only that local authorities will benefit from the substantial increase in fees that were put in place in December this year but that, on an annual basis, the value of those fees will be retained in future.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the increase in planning fees, and she is quite right, but when the Government made that increase they knew that it would not cover the costs of planning applications. Can the Minister justify why hard-pressed councils have to take funding from other public services to pay for planning applications?

My Lords, we want to proceed in a measured way, providing additional resourcing without disproportionately impacting businesses and householders. Full cost recovery now could result in a substantial rise in some fees, which would adversely impact some developments. Of course, further to the fee increases and the additional specific funding through the planning skills delivery fund, we have made provision for an increase in the settlement to local authorities overall this year.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, if local authorities had the ability to set their own planning fees, they would be in a far better position to recruit more planning officers, compete more efficiently with the private sector and deliver the housing of the future?

My Lords, we do not think that the answer is for local planning authorities to set their own fees. There is no guarantee that additional income would go into planning services or deliver efficiencies, and it would risk a variation in fees between different areas, dissuading home owners and small developers from undertaking development. The substantial increases in fees and the indexing of fees that we have provided for this December will go a long way to supporting local authorities to increase staffing in their planning departments and the skills of those already there.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister is saying, but it will not touch the sides. The local government funding crisis has seen planning departments, even those in shared services, with ever-diminishing resources. Economic growth absolutely depends on a quick and efficient planning service, delivered at local level. Labour will increase planning capacity by hiring more than 300 new planners, funded by increasing the surcharge on stamp duty paid by non-UK residents, to ensure that every local planning authority has at least one full-time planner. Does she agree that every local planning authority should have at least one full-time planner?

My Lords, as I have said, we have made provision for increased resources to go into local planning. I am glad the noble Baroness opposite has recognised the success of the surcharge on stamp duty charged to non-resident purchasers of property, which was introduced by this Government.

My Lords, given the clear impression that local authorities do not have the resources to draw up a robust local plan at the moment—this can be rectified only over time—and, even worse, that they do not have the resources to defend a local plan when it is challenged by speculative proposals on appeal, what does the Minister suggest for current issues around water and nutrient neutrality and biodiversity net gain, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, given the existing lack of ability to monitor, let alone take enforcement action against, infractions?

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, the Government had a proposed solution on nutrient neutrality that was rejected by this House, including by the Front Bench opposite, holding back the building of thousands of additional homes. The point about more specialist skills is well made. That is why, as part of our planning capacity and capability programme, we are looking to boost specialist skills so that local planning authorities have the skills they need.

My Lords, it might not be just a matter of staffing our local planning departments. Do the Government have any concerns about the quality of the planners whom a local authority can recruit, given that the private sector will seek to poach many of the brightest and best?

My Lords, the Government are focused on the recruitment pipeline of planners and offering increased skills training to them. We have two schemes providing bursaries for master’s degrees in planning and have commissioned a nationwide survey of the skills and resources in local authorities with planning responsibilities. It will be the most detailed picture of planning capacity in England to date. We expect it to be published this spring, and will use it as an annual baseline to measure progress.

How can it be a surprise that there is currently a shortage, given that His Majesty’s Government have removed the normal requirement that every local authority had to have a specific target of homes to be built? As any of us who had been in local government knew full well, the minute that went, local authorities that were strapped for cash would automatically not move forward immediately to replace planners who retired or moved on.

Planning authorities still have an obligation to produce an up-to-date local plan, setting out how they plan to build the houses that their local areas need. The Government are focused on this and will shine a greater light of transparency on the authorities that do not have plans. We will be prepared to take any measures needed to put that in place.

Can His Majesty’s Government have any influence on the training of planners so that they understand the word “beauty” and do not allow such grotesque buildings in London? They are so high, dominating the river, and they destroy the heritage and history of our wonderful capital city.

As I have already said, we are putting funding and resources into increasing the skills of planners in the pipeline for master’s-level qualifications. The point about beauty was well made, and it has been added to the National Planning Policy Framework. Part of getting more houses built is ensuring that local residents have given their consent, and how houses look and feel in local areas is an essential part of that.