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.

Ombudsman the bogeyman?

Ombudsman cases: does the risk warrant the reaction?

We’re starting another round of support for councils struggling to process applications quickly enough. A lot of our support helps councils make their processes slicker. One of the most common things to slow a process down is having lots of checks and hand-offs built into it.  These build time and cost into the process and, counter-intuitively, often make it more vulnerable to error (the next person will pick up anything I miss).

Many hand-offs and checks are built-in after an error, omission or failure-to-do-something resulted in an ‘Ombudsman Case’ (usually a few years ago). The checks and hand-offs are normally applied ‘across the board’, with little regard for the type/variety of work in the system and therefore no real understanding of the risk that an ‘Ombudsman Case’ really represents.

How big is the risk?

So, does the time and cost of the checks and hand-offs justify the risk/probability of a case ending up in front of the ombudsman? I did a 5 minute bit of research. You can search the Local Government Ombudsman website so I looked for cases that involved ‘planning applications’ over a 2 year period (April 2014 – April 2016). The number was about 2,400 cases. If you consider that councils process around 600,000 planning applications a year then my Ombudsman cases represent about 0.6% of applications.

A colleague recently worked out that you can save around 2 days of time if you manage to shave 1 minute off of the processing time of every thousand applications you handle. Consider how many minutes (hours, days) are taken up by unnecessary checking, hand-offs, and cases sitting in the backs of queues. So if every council in England saved itself a minute by eliminating a hand-off the sector would buy itself around 3 years’ worth of extra time to deal with planning applications.

Once bitten thrice shy?

I understand why checks are introduced – no one wants the expense and bad publicity of an Ombudsman case. But does the risk really justify the approaches taken by some councils? I know of at least one council that checks that the right consultees have been consulted at least 3 times during the processing of an application.

Now you may say that it is because of the checks and hand-offs that the ombudsman cases are so low. But even if every ombudsman case was a planning case that would still only amount to 20,000 (more crude research) a year – a mere 3% of total planning cases processed.

My research was quick and crude and a bit of idle fun (I am sure someone closer to the subject than me will challenge the numbers), but I hope it will help all of us feel a bit more comfortable about abandoning a lot of the unnecessary checks and hand-offs we’ve managed to strangle our planning processes with.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

I was spending some time this week doing some ground work with a group of councils. Nothing exciting – just establishing across a dozen or so organisations how much work there was, of what type, and how many people were involved in dealing with it. Just preparing the ground so that we have some facts with which to predict whether the ideas we’ll end up piloting are going to have any real impact. As a way of breaking up the day, I decided to run a short interlude based on something I’d read recently.

Side note: we work in a professional context and it is really easy to read ‘Planning’ and related blogs and news sites and stay in the ‘bubble’. For years I have been arguing that planners who want to get on should read MJ – council leaders need people who can understand broader organisational pressures.

More recently, I’ve come to realise that broadening the variety of news is only part of the story. It’s even more important to develop your thinking. Years ago I stumbled into the Farnham Street blog and over the course of my lunchtimes I think I have read every word.

The session I ran on Friday was based on the post Warren Berger’s three-part method for more creativity.

Why is there a problem?

The process began with asking a deliberately broad and ill-defined question. Why is there a problem? As you might imagine with a group of 20 or so there was a mixture of awkward silence and a wide variety of ‘big’ and ‘small’ answers. Some examples:

  • There isn’t a real problem, it is one of perception
  • There is a lack of consistency across our organisations
  • The regulations by which we operate are crap
  • We represent a delay to people trying to get things done
  • We mediate competing interests, each side will see us a different problem
  • There is lots of process and little value created by it

The method offered by Warren Berger then goes on to suggest follow-up questions that move through the problem-solving process. At the time, I bailed on the process (the sandwiches had arrived) because it was clear that we as a group had a problem about our problem. As usual for me, it took a bit of reflection and a pint at The Murderers to be able to put it into words.

Oooh yes, let’s do ‘transformation’

Projects in local government are often arrived at by way of horse trading. If this then that. In our case, if ‘transformation’ then ‘flexibility’. Because the goal is expressed in terms than can mean many different things to different people the hard work at the outset is skipped. And this is true for projects that have ‘deliverables’ and all that jazz – a set of deliverables does not solve a problem.

And this clarity about the problem matters. It became clear as we were wrapping up for the day that there were several versions of an unspoken problem around the table. There are two consequences of this absence of definition

  • “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved” [Charles “Boss” Kettering]: by not saying the problem out loud its impossible to understand whether the actions you’re proposing are going to solve it. And that matters because …
  • It’s surprisingly easy to make things worse rather than better. Failing projects don’t represent a lack of improvement – they often lead to things getting worse

What does a good problem look like ?

It’s not for me to suggest what the correct problem is for this group. However I can offer a couple of example problems to show how important it is to create the right framework at the outset:

  1. Our costs are too high to compete with the private sector
  2. We are not ready to compete with the private sector

Problem 1 is (I think) where some people are in the group. It leads to a rigorous focus on cost, probably to restructuring with the intention of reducing overheads and having slightly better economies of scale.

Problem 2 has a broader focus – what is it that we should be thinking about ? It leads naturally on to more questions, and ultimately more problems. How and why do customers choose ? Is price important to them? How do convenience, reliability and risk feature ? Where do buying decisions happen ? What is it that we (as planning authorities) can do differently to other sorts of organisation ?

The two problems illustrate how it is easy to bake assumptions in at the outset that restrict creative responses further down the line. It’s not natural for planners to think like marketers, and probably most would recoil from thinking about how we might create barriers to entry for the private sector. But if we don’t frame the problem creatively we will just unthinkingly go into another round of cost-cutting rather than making the most of the brainpower and talent we have in councils.