Reflections on the Housing White Paper

We finished our event series on the HWP yesterday, and before the memory starts to fade I thought I’d try to set out my thoughts. This is a personal reflection rather than the FAQ (and member briefing) on the HWP that we have separately promised to make.

What the HWP means for Local Plans

Most obviously the HWP disrupts the local plan system in three ways Continue reading

20% reduction in subsidy

I was asked the other day whether I thought the proposed 20% increase in planning fees would lead to increased resources in planning departments. It was a live interview, so my innate grumpiness and cynicism meant that I answered in the negative. Since then I have been thinking about that question a bit more deeply, so I thought I would unpack my thoughts on it and see if I would answer differently today.

The fee increase

A quick summary then. DCLG have written a “dear CEx” letter to all planning authorities, offering them a deal. In this letter they say that councils can charge an extra 20% on top of the nationally set planning fees if they can demonstrate that this extra income is spent on planning services. The proposal is an offer of a voluntary ring-fence to councils. Most people I know have accepted it, and will work out the details as they go – although I’ve also heard that some councils are turning it down.  Continue reading

A call for sites (with a twist)

I was at a SEEC event last week, providing some facilitation for a table of councillors. It was a great event featuring many people already delivering housing and associated infrastructure. Inspiring stuff, but I don’t think anyone will blame me if I say that it was economic adviser Tim Leunig who gave me the most food for thought from the day.

Speaking quickly and with candour he was an excellent closing speaker. There was no shuffling coats on, or packing up of papers, while he set out a challenge for the room. I’ve been turning it over a bit in my mind since, so this post may not be a true reflection of what he said so treat this as “inspired by” rather than “as related by” Tim. Continue reading

2020 Vision: Re-Imagining the Planning Service

Nostalgic for 2020

I have been reading an article about how the clever re-packaging of nostalgia is key to the success of popular TV shows like Strictly and Bake-Off. These shows provide entertainment that feels modern and at the same time, familiar and safe. The article asks whether this re-packaging of the safe and familiar is just a retreat from a frightening future?

It got me thinking about the financial future for local government; you know the one that’s just 3 years’ away; the one where services will be expected to pay for themselves, no longer propped up by subsidies like the Revenue Support Grant?

Will the positive noises we are finally hearing from a government waking up (the private sector have joined the chorus) to the resourcing crisis, and the mooted increase in fees, distract us from this much more frightening (not-so-far-away-it’s-imminent) resourcing future? In the short term an increase in fees may take a bit of the pressure off, plug an existing gap perhaps, but it won’t, on its own, come anywhere near being enough to meet the 2020 funding challenge. How are planning services preparing?

Minding the (funding) gap

The size of the challenge will be different for different places. Take a look at this picture produced using our new ‘Productivity & Resourcing Review’. It represents the funding gap between application fee income and the costs of delivering the service. This is a group of councils working together to imagine/design what a regional planning offer might look like. It shows the stark reality for some councils of the funding gap that has to be bridged between now and 2020.

funding-gap-use

Each horizontal bar represents a council. The black dots on the graphic represent the income received from fees. The further to the right your black dot is of the coloured column (representing the cost of the different types of work the planning service does), the less gap there is to bridge.

Productivity & Resources
Councils need to start planning now for how they are going to bridge the gap. How many know what their gap looks like or how big it is? Without having done that piece of work, it’s difficult to even start. For many in this group of councils the challenge may be difficult because of the size of the gap, but they are ahead of the game using PAS’s Productivity & Resource Review to understand where the biggest holes are and the potential threats and opportunities that lie ahead. I fear many will wait too long to do this and then realise that time has run out to do anything meaningful.

There’s competition too!

Councils being allowed to set their own planning fees would close the funding gap more quickly, and it will be an option in some guise for councils going head-to-head with alternative providers in the pilot areas (when they eventually start). The alternative provider agenda may be slower in coming that first thought but it isn’t going away. 41 per cent of the planning consultancies in the recent PlanningResource survey expressed an interest in becoming a provider and 43 per cent (the same lot?) felt that councils setting their own planning fees was a bad idea.

…and they’ll be hungry

Competition will begin with just smaller applications and some places may not, in the long-run, mind losing some of that work to the private sector. Many councils though are beginning to think about what operating in a competitive market will mean for their income when the inevitable happens and the competition moves into the major applications market and comes calling for its crown jewels. Here’s another picture for the same set of councils mentioned earlier and shows how much of their overall income comes from fees for majors.

majorsuse

For some of these councils fee income for majors is approaching or is over half of total fee income. Councils that are alive to this are beginning to look NOW at developing a competitive offer to customers on major applications so that they are ready to compete in the most lucrative planning applications market.

Fear comes from lack of control

Like most things that frighten us, it is the extent of control we have over a situation that plays a big part. Take devolution for example (go on, take it, please). For the pro-devolution areas no one really knows what will it will actually mean to deliver a planning service once you have control of finances, and for those rejecting the idea, what is the devolved alternative? I was struck by something that the LGA’s own Lord Porter said at our staff conference a week or so back – he is of the firm belief that those areas not embracing the devolution deals now are likely to miss the boat forever.

I am not banging the drum for devolution or any other form of self-determination or financing model for local government. What I and PAS are doing is listening to and working with the councils that are already and actively preparing to exert some control over an uncertain future with no outside financial support.

A theme deserving serious attention

So, what’s to be done? The PAS Conference in March 2017 will be dedicated to helping planning services navigate a way through a currently uncertain present (we *should* have a White Paper by then) and figuring out how to make the journey to and beyond 2020 and survive.

I’m unofficially at the moment calling our conference ‘re-imagining the planning service of the future’. We’ll have, of course, DCLG along to discuss first-hand the implications of a fresh White Paper, and the opportunity to hear from, debate and challenge a stellar bunch of Chief Execs, planners, councillors and private sector colleagues that are already thinking about how to change and re-invent planning to meet the challenges up to and beyond 2020. Book on and join us here.

What are planning applications?

It feels like we are heading towards another shake-down of the planning system. Or, rather, it feels like we are going to get shaken down at least twice. The first will be led by our new Government as it looks to streamline the system. The second will be led by councils as they attempt to shed work and cost in order to make ends meet.

I’ve been wondering how we might help. After all we in PAS probably know more about the inner workings of planning departments than anyone else alive. We continue to do lots of work with councils but most of it is done in private. I believe that anyone setting out to change the planning system should start by understanding what it does, so this post is an attempt to share a little evidence base. Continue reading

Can we just start again?

It is clear that resources are back on the Planning agenda, and in the context of ferocious pressure across local government that has got to be a sensible thing. As a consequence we’ve been returning to some work from a few years ago; helping councils in various configurations think about their fees, costs and productivity.

In amongst all this I had a moment of sudden realisation the other day. Despite the fact that localised fee-setting could be extremely good business for PAS and we are uniquely well situated with our masses of historical data it’s the wrong thing to do*. Trying to allocate little bits of cost on the various bits of the planning process as presently configured is hopelessly compromised. Much better, in my view, is just to start thinking about the planning application process from scratch.  Continue reading

Neither big nor clever

Your Local Development Scheme. A pain? A millstone? An enigma wrapped inside a tissue of lies? It doesn’t have to be any of those things. All you have to do is get a page on your website which puts the formal stages up and, usefully, any forthcoming consultations. Then, set out when you’re planning to meet them and….that’s it. Yes, really!

If you have to change it, just alter it and show how it has changed. You could even try seasons for things in later stages.

So why is it that so many authorities keep republishing 10, 20 or 30 plus pages? They lovingly describe the heartbreaking lack of progress to date, the endless consult-a-go-rounds that have happened since 2010. They highlight that wonderful period from 2011 to 2015 when you were ‘going through the representations’ before returning to a ‘further additional extra this time I know it’s for real’ preferred options (with time allowed for further modifications). There are pages and pages about documents already adopted and usually lots of legal gumph about prescribed periods and out of date regulation numbers.

So, that’s the LDS. Make it a ‘one-page web-page next-bus-style announcement using seasons not months’.

But how do you know you’re getting close to getting that assessment of time right? What lies beneath? How will you make sure you meet those milestones so that when DCLG come calling you can tell them….that everything is on track, thank you for the interest.

At PAS, we have been looking at the main reasons where slippage has occurred. Whilst there is a chance that in some cases, it would have been almost impossible to avoid, it is almost always possible to see it coming.

So, to give you every chance of planning ahead, setting and agreeing a timetable that can withstand the forces of evil that seek to derail, we have come up with….a sort of a table and a chart and some words.

It isn’t big, just like your LDS shouldn’t be, and it isn’t particularly clever, just like the person who wrote it. It’s just something for you to be able to refer to, to take a breath and just scan the horizon. Take stock of what you have, assess what you need, and understand who to involve and when.

It’s available to all our subscribers, and open for comments from you to suggest improvements. Many thanks to the people who helped us to make it by contributing their thoughts and coming along to the event.