New body hopes to ease pressure on local authority planning departments

Public Practice wants to help councils cut costs, avoid planning delays and improve relations with the private sector.

At the end of last month, a new social enterprise was launched that aims to place a new generation of planners within local government in order to improve services, help tackle the housing crisis and foster better relations between the public and private sectors.

Public Practice is now recruiting its first cohort of 16 planners, architects and urbanists for year-long placements in strategic roles within councils. The idea is that authorities will be offered a simple and cost-effective way of accessing a new pool of talent, as well as benefiting from shared research and learning.

The initiative was launched with the backing of six founding partners, including the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Berkeley Group and British Land. It was conceived by Greater London Authority (GLA) official Finn Williams, who is its chief executive.

Property Week caught up with Williams to find out how he came to develop the idea and what benefits he hopes Public Practice will generate.

How did you come up with the model for Public Practice?

In my role within the GLA, we have done a lot of work on public sector planning capacity and how fundamental that is to what the mayor would now call ‘good growth’ for London. At the same time, we were having conversations with the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Planning Officers Society about capacity beyond London. We have built up quite a good picture from a series of surveys and other research about what the capacity needs are within local authorities, how they are trying to meet those needs and where there is a gap. We got to a stage through the mayor’s good growth agenda where we were able to work on a business plan for the initiative with Sadiq Khan’s support.

Were the issues you identified outside London similar to those facing the capital?

We worked on that together with the LGA, in particular the LGA in the east of England. This is a good example of an area that has a lot of growth to deal with but last year it had 115 unfilled planning vacancies across those authorities. They spent something like £700,000 just advertising those roles.

So the issue is a lack of planners rather than a lack of funding?

It’s different for every authority, so I don’t want to generalise too much. But when we ran a survey in 2014, the single biggest barrier for local authorities building their capacity was funding. Two years on, the biggest issue - and an issue for 100% of London boroughs - was attracting and keeping the right people. So authorities are finding ways, one way or another, of identifying short-term budgets for fixed-term posts. That could be through capital budgets or planning performance agreements. Looking to the future it could be through ringfenced planning fees. I think that every authority we spoke to couldn’t get the people, or at least found it difficult.

The authorities must have taken a keen interest in Public Practice, then…

They’re all interested in finding another model, particularly when they’re increasingly using agency staff to fill those short-term vacancies. That’s something that shifted between the 2014 and 2016 surveys. The use of agency staff either occasionally or routinely to fill gaps in capacity went up to 91%

Will Public Practice be significantly cheaper than agencies?

The Public Practice model, because it’s not for profit and it’s subsidised by our founding partners, involves less than half the cost of going to a private agency. In addition to the financial cost of using agencies, there is also the cost in terms of the loss of local knowledge and lack of continuity and, to a certain extent, accountability. Part of the purpose of Public Practice is to build and embed expertise in local authorities so that when developers are working with authorities they get a department that knows the place, that is consistent and that has the competence to make good decisions and bring forward development.

What are the next steps?

We opened for applications for associates at the end of October. Associates are built environment practitioners, so they might be planners, architects, urban designers, historic environment specialists or regeneration experts. We’re looking at the broadest possible cross section of the industry. We will eventually select a cohort of 16 associates through a rigorous three-stage selection process. At the same time, we have launched a call for expressions of interest from local authorities that are interested in hosting placements. Initially, it’s for authorities in London, the South East and the east of England. The first cohort will focus on that geography - effectively anywhere within commuting distance of London - and then in subsequent years, subject to demand, we will be looking to develop cohorts in, say, the Midlands or the North West.

How much control will authorities have over who they get?

The authorities will be able to say what kind of roles they are looking to recruit for and we are asking them to provide salaries of £30,000 to £50,000 initially for the associates. We will then go through a match-making process to pair up the associates with the authorities, so that by January we will be in a position to offer the first cohort places on the programme. They will then start in post in April.

What sort of training will the associates get?

We will start with a week-long induction course. That will be a grounding in all aspects of public practice, from working in a local authority to the different skills and knowledge required. The idea is that because the cohort will be multi-disciplinary in terms of their skills and background, they will help each other and share knowledge between them. The idea is that they will spend 90% of their time working in their local authority and 10% working collectively as a cohort on research and development, which is then shared with all the authorities. So, as an authority, in a way you don’t have your associate for 10% of the time, but you get 16 times that amount of time in research and intelligence back. That will be in the form of reports and best-practice guidance on public sector planning - everything from better approaches to land disposal to latest thinking on using digital software to engage communities.

It will very much be about cutting-edge practice.

How are you targeting potential associates?

That is what we are doing right now through a series of events as well as social media and other coverage. We have got about 100 people who have already expressed an interest and that was before we even launched. They are a mix of ages - it’s for people with a minimum of three years’ experience, but they could equally be three years away from retirement - and from across the built environment. They tend to be working in the private sector, although it’s open to anyone, and generally working for consultancies. They are interested in seeing how it works from the public sector side. Some are looking at taking a secondment, but others are looking for a career change.

What happens after the year is up?

It’s not necessarily one year and that’s it. After the first year, some of the cohort will stay on and do another year at their authority or they may switch authorities or they may go back into their previous jobs. Our aim over the long term is to build capacity in the public sector, but if you get people moving between the public and private sector more and really understanding how the other side works I think that will increase understanding and make it less antagonistic.

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