July 27, 2008

Key Skills to Change the World

By Baker, Lee

Councils are a principal target area for a major investment in training to make sure that planning posts at senior as well as junior grades are filled, reports Lee Baker While the planning profession's ranks have swelled enormously since the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 hit the statute books, local authority demand for planners is still not being met.

Membership of the RTPI now stands at 21,000, an all-time high and a 15 per cent increase in just four years. But while the government's bursary scheme has helped to almost double the numbers graduating from planning courses to about 1,500 over the same period, local government is still suffering a skills shortage.

Government and professional attention is now switching away from increasing the number of planning school graduates and towards enabling councils to compete with consultants in filling in skills gaps at more senior levels. Around twothirds of councils were having difficulty in hiring planners in 2005, according to the most recent local government employment survey. Birmingham City Council, England's largest local authority, had a 30 per cent vacancy rate.

In response, planning minister Caroline Flint will require recipients of the government bursaries for planning postgraduate courses to work in the public sector for three years. But ministers and professional leaders recognise that this will not tackle the problem of the "missing generation" of planners. Staff with the experience needed to fill middle management posts are in desperately short supply.

"There are things that councils can do, and some councils are already doing, to make working for them more attractive and fulfilling," says RTPI education projects officer Jacqui Ward. The biggest problem is local authorities' lack of demand for training, the institute told the Commons communities and local government select committee's current investigation into the skills crisis in the built environment.

The government estimates that 30,000 people work in planning in total, which means that the sector deploys some 9,000 staff who are not institute members. Flint hopes that more technicians and administrators working in planning departments will upgrade their skills and move towards chartered status. Changes to the permitted development rules later in the year are seen as an opportunity for technical members and support staff to develop their expertise.

The best councils, such as those involved in the RTPI's Learning Partners scheme, are investing in existing staff. As well as allowing recent planning graduates to secure corporate recognition, professional development programmes are aimed at equipping other employees to take on new responsibilities. The RTPI also wants to attract more career changers into the profession.

Its associate membership class was launched last year for individuals with experience of spatial planning but lacking an accredited planning degree. In the first four rounds of applications 93 individuals became associate members. They include people involved in spatial planning from overseas, members of other built environment professions and a number who simply lack an accredited planning degree but have wide-ranging experience in the field.

"Senior professionals don't necessarily want to go back to university. This membership class recognises that," says Ward. The RTPI now aims to develop a process for associate members to secure chartered status without pursuing a masters course. This could offer a new route which recognises that the shortage will not be solved by focusing on young people alone.

Planning Officers Society spokesman Stuart Hylton agrees that tackling the skills gap by "growing your own" staff, rather than simply relying on planning schools to do the job, "is an invaluable part of our armoury". It would be much more effective for regular exercises such as retail impact assessments to be carried out in- house, he believes. But too often councils are constrained by budgetary restrictions.

Employees currently processing householder applications cannot simply be transferred onto teams handling large applications or producing local development frameworks, Hylton observes. "Such a transition will obviously require investment in training," he says. He sees a danger of staff doing jobs that are no longer required simply being lost rather than retrained, given that councils are faced with growing costs and tight revenue budgets.

Research by the RTPI has found that some council planning departments spend just Pounds 100 per head a year on training, whereas others allocate as much as Pounds 500 per head. "Sending just one person on a masters course could leave nothing for continuing professional development," says Ward. The RTPI wants to encourage such spending and to make the money that is available go further under its lifelong learning strategy.

Targeted assistance to address skills shortages in specific areas is also available from the Planning Advisory Service and the Academy for Sustainable Communities (ASC). However, Ward says it is important to meet training needs in other ways, since there can be no short cuts to chartered status. "You don't have to go to a conference in London - it could be a lunchtime seminar. We also want to explore how to make better use of the web," she explains.

The government acknowledges that the skills shortage will intensify over the next few years, given the number of planners due to retire. An estimated 25 per cent shortfall of planners this year will increase to 46 per cent by 2012, according to ASC figures. This time bomb requires a robust response, says DTZ director Keith Thomas. "The status of planners within local government needs to be raised. They need to believe that they can progress within the organisation," he argues.

The RTPI wants councils to appoint chief planning officers as an executive position to aspire to. It also hopes that its Learning Partners programme can encourage more authorities to invest in developing their workforces. "This meets your organisation's skills needs but also motivates employees, helping you with recruitment and retention," Ward concludes.

Planning skills: measures are in hand to ensure continuing supply of professionals at all levels

Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Ltd. Jul 2008

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