Council looks to tackle shortage of planners

SIC head of planning Iain McDiarmid: 'There’s not a whole pool of qualified planners sitting here locally.' Photo: SIC

SHETLAND Islands Council is stepping up its efforts to tackle a shortage of staff in its planning department as it continues to struggle to process applications on time.

The department is now working with a headhunting company as it looks to fill its 6.4 vacant core posts, with some sections of the service running at just 50 per cent capacity.

A coastal zone manager post to deal with issues like aquaculture development and flooding has been left unfilled for one and a half years.

Planning manager Iain McDiarmid said local authorities are supposed to make decisions on planning applications by two months, but at the moment “most of them aren’t even getting looked at” within that timeframe in Shetland.

The planning pages on the council’s website have now added a message encouraging people to submit applications earlier than they may have intended.

Councillors have previously expressed worry in the chambers over the time it is taking to process applications and the potential knock-on effect to the local economy.

There are also some concerns that delays to applications could mean some projects might miss out on funding by failing to meet deadlines.

Work done in the department includes processing and deciding on planning applications, sorting through building warrants and providing consent for listed buildings and conservation areas.

McDiarmid said the planning team have started a pilot project along with the council’s human resources department and Promote Shetland to explore new ways of recruiting as the usual method – advertising on myjobscotland.gov.uk – was not working.

One process already underway is engaging with a headhunting company, which looks for potential new staff through the likes of professional networking website LinkedIn.

“There’s not a whole pool of qualified planners sitting here locally,” McDiarmid said.

“There’s hardly anyone in the planning service that’s come to us as a fully trained planner, so we do kind of grow our own staff all the time. All that takes time as well.

“If you’re trying to attract a qualified person, you’re trying to attract somebody who does the job already, probably gets about the same sort of pay, and wants to move to Shetland, and their partner/family wants to move to Shetland as well. It’s a big life commitment to move to Shetland.

“So that’s why we’re speaking to Promote Shetland to try to get their input and their help, and that’s all about attracting people to live and work in Shetland.”

Adding to the backlog has also been an increase in people enquiring about the status of their planning applications.

“Obviously the more delays there are, the more people get frustrated, the more they put in complaints about it, the more we have to deal with,” McDiarmid said.

The local vacancies have come from people leaving for other jobs and also retirement, but planning staff shortages seem to be experienced across the country too.

The lack of qualified workers in Shetland, meanwhile, is nothing new, with public bodies regularly struggling to lure trained staff north to live in the isles.

“There’s recruitment issues across the whole council, I’d say,” McDiarmid added.

The planning department has considered taking in temporary agency staff to ease the workload, which would come at an extra cost.

But “it’s about the local context and the local issues and understanding how things work locally”.

“That takes three to six months til you’re up to speed with everything that goes on with that,” McDiarmid continued. “So if you get somebody in short term, that’s not necessarily going to help.”

Working in planning in Shetland is a varied affair, the manager added, with everything from housing to larger projects like the Shetland Gas Plant and wind farms in the job in recent years.