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Borders closed on skills
Planning – 14 November 2008

London boroughs are looking closely at the scope for developing existing staff skills amid signals that changes to work permit rules could be about to cut off the supply from overseas, Mark Smulian reports

Along with skilled ballet dancers, hovercraft pilots, Scottish fish filleters and chefs commanding a wage of more than 8.10 an hour, planners are in short supply in the UK. Yet unlike these other skills, planning faces exclusion from the government-approved list of "shortage occupations" under which qualified professionals from outside the EU can work in the UK.

If the government accepts the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published last month, it will pose problems for those local authorities that have come to rely on planners from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to fill gaps for which they cannot otherwise recruit. The most acute problem is in London but other major cities and southern councils will also be hit, alarming directors already grappling with recruitment and retention issues.

The change is part of the UK's switch to a points-based system for immigration that emphasises scarce skills. At present, some planners from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries can work here either because they have a British grandparent or a short-term working visa on a scheme for people aged under 30. The new system would make it far more difficult to fill holes by overseas recruitment.

A concerted lobbying effort will be needed to make the government overturn the MAC findings. The RTPI has not made a submission but has registered its disappointment that it was not asked for its views. It has also asked to be advised when further representations can be lodged.

London Councils, which represents the authorities most immediately affected, did not submit evidence to MAC on planning or any other profession. A spokeswoman acknowledges that there is anecdotal evidence of the capital's reliance on Commonwealth planners. "We picked up a couple of concerns that the narrow list may cause problems, but it will be reviewed in the next six months," she points out.

MAC's methodology looked at whether a field is skilled, whether it faces a shortage and whether overseas recruitment represents a sensible response. Planning appears to have fallen at the second hurdle, although the committee has not revealed the basis for this decision. "It looked at markets and took a logical approach. This is a larger exercise than has ever been attempted before," says a Home Office spokesman.

A study by University of Westminster head of urban development and regeneration Tim Edmundson for London Councils' predecessor in 2006 found that all but three boroughs had problems in recruiting planners and that nearly 20 per cent were from outside the EU. "I have not researched this again, but nothing I have heard suggests that it has changed since then," he says. "In some boroughs, Commonwealth planners were close to 40 per cent of the total, particularly in inner London There were also some in major cities such as Birmingham and Leeds."

Skills gap puts experience at a premium

"This is going to be a problem," says Association of London Borough Planning Officers development committee chairman Michael Kiely. "While we have had quite a good response if we recruit recent graduates, we get very little for posts that need someone with experience. There is a generation gap in planning and we plug it with people from overseas when we can find them."

Kiely is head of planning at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where massive docklands projects such as Wood Wharf and the nearby Riverside South tower for finance house JP Morgan have both been handled by Australians. "Training in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is very similar to ours and they are as good as, or in the case of Australian spatial planners often better, than people trained here," he finds.

London Borough of Ealing head of built environment Noel Rutherford warns that his authority would struggle if deprived of Commonwealth planners. "About one-third of my staff come from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa," he says. "It's tough to recruit in the suburbs. In central London people can commute from anywhere, but in places like this they often have to travel some distance."

Rutherford finds graduate recruitment easier: "They are happy to live in a shared house for a few years. But when they want to settle it's difficult for them on a local government salary in the suburbs." Ealing has experienced particular difficulties in areas such as enforcement. "It is not the most popular career path. It can be difficult to recruit and keep people who have experience," he adds. He finds London Councils' silence surprising. "There has been a lack of communication generally between MAC and local government bodies. It does not seem to have been joined up."

The London Borough of Redbridge employs a handful of eastern European nationals in geographic information systems and planning technician roles. "People from eastern Europe and Asia have very strong IT skills, although we have to train them in UK political processes. With many mid-career planners from the UK, we have to work very hard to get their IT skills up and keep them there," maintains the borough's former planning director Marc Dorfman, who has just taken up a similar post at Haringey.

"People from abroad have energy and employers like to have them," he adds. "Overseas planners are conceptually very good if they are asked to prepare a planning brief for an area or a community. They are less so on how to prepare a compulsory purchase order or an appeal, since those depend on understanding legal processes."

Training focuses on increasing expertise

Redbridge is now growing its own expertise by developing staff already in post. Dorfman thinks that planners of the future will need to develop their understanding of transport - "the lifeblood of any city" - and energy issues to deal with sustainability demands. "By 2013 planners will find it hard to get jobs unless they know about energy management," he predicts.

Redbridge has helped set up a planning training partnership with other London boroughs, the Government Office for London, the Greater London Authority and the University of Westminster to create short courses. These include a planning for non-planners course for administrators and mid-career development for managers.

"Since Redbridge and Hackney piloted the course for administrators they have been booked up until kingdom come," Dorfman reports. "I have been telling staff that I will not send them on a course for 500 where they just sit there for a morning. Instead, they will be on courses with homework that will be marked, which will do more for their careers."

Unless the government relents on the MAC recommendations, it seems clear that councils throughout London may have to think increasingly hard about growing the skills of planners already on the payroll as well as redoubling their recruitment efforts.

Case study Tim Porter

Tim Porter left Australia's Gold Coast in 2004 with a working holiday visa looking for a bit of adventure. He had worked in a planning consultancy at home and found posts in outer London boroughs after arriving in the UK.

At present, Porter is working on some of the largest projects in Europe as a planner at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. He has been involved in the Wood Wharf scheme, an extension to the Canary Wharf complex featuring 14 major commercial and residential buildings and effectively a new town centre.

"I have been very fortunate to be dealing with world-class projects," he says. "I got my time extended under the skilled migrant programme. You don't know for certain, but I have no plans to go home. Dealing with leading developers and architects develops you and your career so much."

Case study Ingrid Smith

South African-born Ingrid Smith is the London Borough of Ealing's team leader for planning enforcement. She now has British citizenship but originally arrived in the UK on a working holiday visa in 2002.

Smith worked in a Johannesburg consultancy after graduating in town and regional planning from the University of Potchefstroom. Her visa was extended after Ealing applied to the Home Office and agreed to act as her sponsor - a status that tied her to the borough unless another employer would take over the sponsorship.

"I came here on a sabbatical from a planning consultancy for four months," she explains. "In South Africa, I dealt mainly with change of use applications from agriculture to residential or commercial. The UK system is similar in that it is also plan-led. So although it took me time to get to grips with the legislation, the systems I trained in are very similar."