Planners and mental health

One of the things we do alongside the work we do for MHCLG is small, bespoke pieces of review work for councils. We are asked to provide an impartial and external review – sometimes it ends up being a full peer challenge and other times a narrow and quite specific part of the planning department. One week it is with a big London Borough, the next in a little rural district.

Because we are sometimes dealing with quite sensitive issues, and we are often making friendly and constructive criticisms, we don’t tend to talk about it very much. It is fascinating and valuable and very good personal development so I do some too- especially if there is a sense there might be more going at the council than meets the eye.

Occasionally there are broad themes that emerge from the review work that are worth saying something about. It might be about problem solving, or innovation. This post is about mental health in planning departments – and how we might need to up our collective game.

The way we run a review is very simple. We sit the staff in a room, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually and we listen to them. Very occasionally we might ask a simple question, but really the art is listening carefully and then finding a way to reflect back in a structured way what we’ve heard to the organisation. It often feels like group therapy. Almost always at least one person breaks down in tears. Usually this seems cathartic.

On a recent review the team met someone who caused a bit more concern. No tears, but a conversation that revealed a mind under enormous stress. We are not really therapists, so we can’t do much more than set “the work” to one side and have a frank conversation about mental health with this person. We offered an early warning, and tried to explain how sometimes stressed minds get to a point where “more thinking” is not going to work. During this conversation the team learned about each other that we had both had serious episodes of stress in the past.

Working away from home and staying in a hotel delivering a piece of support means you have space and time to review what happened each day. That evening the team compared notes – in the course of most reviews it is apparent that there are people (often senior people) under too much stress. It is obvious why – the process of Development Management is relentless, the forces at play are enormous and the political component means you are never sure when something is going to blow up in your face.

Acknowledging the inate stress in DM leads natually to the question – “what are we all doing about it ?”. What is our equivalent of the Samaritans phone workers helping each other decompress after a shift ? The answer seems to be nothing beyond trying to fix people after things have got too much. This is not good enough.

Given that the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the general population on development is so far from being won, and the way some anti-development groups are using social media to harrass people in planning the potential for stress is going to increase. This is something that requires an organisational response, and most of the answer is probably no more complicated than recognising it as a real thing, hanging together as a team and supporting each other.

I am confident that you will have noticed someone around the office who appears to be under great stress. Perhaps you have thought about saying something at some point. My unscientific straw poll suggests it is most likely a planning enforcement officer. I can tell you that these conversations are easier than you think.

Like me you probably have a poster about mental health in the office kitchen. They go some way to helping normalise it, and they certainly made me more confident about explicitly bringing the topic into our work on planning reviews. But if I am right DM is almost uniquely tough and a generic council poster is not enough. What does (should ?) your organisation do to look after you ?


Timing is Everything; Quality Designation Measure

“For quality of decision-making, your performance is being assessed ‘now’ based on data that is well over a year old.”

I have had several goes at explaining the Quality measure and how it works, but I’m still to be convinced that everyone understands it and how it works, and right now feels like another good time to raise the subject again. I’ve also (see the foot of this blog) created a ‘Quick Guide’ to the Quality designation measure).

Sometime in June 2019 MHCLG will publish the latest performance data for its ‘Quality’ performance indicator (Live Table 152). This set of data will be used to assess which councils are in danger of being designated under the government’s performance regime.

Think about the timetable; in June 2019, councils will be considered for potential designation for the appeals upheld against decisions made on applications in the period April 2016 – March 2018. That’s a full 15 months on.

The calculation behind the quality assessment is convoluted to say the least – there are 2 periods at play; a 24 month period of decisions made on applications, and an additional 9  month period to allow appeals to go through the system. So it was not until December 2018 that all of the appeal numbers at play were known. Add into the mix another 6 month period for all of that data to make its way from PINS to MHCLG and you end up with the June 2019 decision time.

And in the meantime the next designation period for decisions made has started and finished (!) April 2017 – March 2019. So, if you are not careful with monitoring your performnace, it always feeld like your performance is being assessed ‘now’ based on data that is well over a year old (which is why it’s so important to keep ahead of what is happening by using the PAS ‘crystal ball’ available in the KnowledgeHub).

I have given up trying to explain what the ‘current’ designation period is (until June there are arguably 2 at play), but with the help of some PAS friends, I have created a ‘Designation Quick Guide’ to the quality measure – it helps explain how the measure is calculated and what is included and when:




Have fun with it and let me know if it’s helpful/can be improved?

Simon Says

The first of two reflections from me following our “Head of Planning” conference a couple of weeks ago. To be entirely frank it didn’t get off to the most spectacular start with our special guest speaker having to cancel at short notice.

Life in PAS is full of twists and turns so I decided to embrace the space we had inadvertedly generated for ourselves and run a short session called “Simon Says” – where we imagined the speech that we would have wanted our special guest to have made. In time-honoured fashion we got our tables to use it as an ice-breaker and scribbled it up the results on flip chart paper.

What an amazing mixture

It was always going to be quite a challenging set of asks, especially from heads of planning. As a matter of historical record, here is the list very lightly edited to remove a bit of duplication:

  1. One size does not fit all
  2. Spatial Planning – what are your thoughts on how this works?
  3. Explain the CIL / s106 debacle
  4. When will the CIL regs be published ?
  5. Encourage greater recognition of planning across government departments. Treat it with a more positive outlook rather than an obstacle
  6. Remove PD office to resi – this is creating the slums of the future
  7. Infrastructure delivery before the building of new homes
  8. Letwin review – what is government’s response ?
  9. Require more flexibility for housing delivery test and interpretation
  10. Consider squeeze on affordability and viability
  11. S73a – simplify
  12. Audit of 20% should be required then there would be no pressure from the finance department
  13. Viability – it’s frustrating as this is an exercise of smoke & mirrors and emphasis on viability by government makes it dangerous
  14. Minister talks about good design but PD rights are hypocritical to this
  15. Is government listening ? And / or moving ?

In my own view, once lots of complaints about a lack of responsiveness and general perceptions of unfairness are set to one side the most important points were made by the very first table.

One size does not fit all

It is a very basic question: where on the spectrum between central and local control should planning sit ? It is a question that doesn’t have a correct answer, and it may be that different parts of the planning system should sit at different points [as is already the case with NSIP]. However many of the other points in this list about infrastructure, quality and delivery suggest to me that the application of a single national policy to a complex pattern of local markets is leading to what we might call sub-optimal outcomes.

Spatial Planning – how does this work?

The preparatory moves required to shift planning policy from “very central” towards “more local” is I think starting to happen – slightly unsteadily and unevenly for sure. It is evident in the aspirations of some of the Combined Authorities and in the work that we have begun to scope out as part of our own strategic planning programme led by Nicola.

We are starting work with some regions (there, I’ve said it) shortly, and helping them articulate the added value of strategic development strategies. If done well, in ways that add value and deliverablity, these types of plan may well be part of the process of loosening the central control of key policies. More on this, no doubt, later this year.

Planner or non-planner – did it make a difference to the takeaways from the Chief Planners event?

Reflecting on our Chief Planners event held over 2 days in Birmingham in March our newest Member of the PAS team Principal Consultant Nicola Sworowski and our newly wed Programme Support Officer Annie Jones share their thoughts on the event. Is a planner and non-planners view that different?

Nicola Sworowski, Principal Consultant

The conference fell in my 8th week at PAS which for me was great – time to network with Heads of Planning from across the country but also to spend some time with my newish colleagues.

On the first day I received a picture from a friend who likes to show me how great retirement is – the picture was of her dog, Onyx, in Yorkshire enjoying a walk through the trees with a fantastic blue sky.  I replied with a picture of my view to which she replied ‘it looks a bit grey’ which was a reference to clothes and not hair colour! I saw her a few days later and she asked how my ‘grey day’ was and to her surprise I said it was very enjoyable and an interesting way to spend a couple of days.

It was great that the conference was so well attended and there was a fantastic range of speakers across a wide range of planning related topics.  I took something away from all the presentations.  It was great for me to have interaction with the Heads of Planning and to hear their questions and equally their concerns, as PAS may be able to help with some of them.

I have heard it several times before but I enjoy hearing the stat that only 11% of land in this country is developed – I would love to do a public poll on what people thought that number was as I suspect people would guess much higher.

I added to my reading list, the book called The Happy City and the Welsh Government Plan though I haven’t yet started either!  I continue to be intrigued about the concept of putting a monetary value on social value and considering wider than job training and local supply chains following my initial chat with Mark Dickens about this and look forward to watching this progress.

For me as a Planner, it is always great to hear the Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain speak, but my favourite part is completely unrelated to Planning but instead was when one of my colleague’s referred to himself as the poster boy of HDT!  Says nothing about me as a Planner, just as a person!

Hopefully, next time I take a picture at the conference it will have a bit more colour although I am not sure what is wrong with grey!

Annie Jones, Programme Support Officer

I joined the PAS team last summer as the programme support officer, and up until that point my understanding of planning was limited to basement and house extensions! I now know there is a lot more to it!

My role in these events is to organise the venue, accommodation, and general logistics. Everything from creating the event on the Eventbrite, to making sure that the venue has everyone’s dietary requirements. I’ve arranged a number of events since joining PAS, however this was the first overnight conference and there is always a concern that something may go wrong! Thankfully everything ran smoothly and any mishaps that did occur were minor and easily sorted with the venue. Everyone had a room to sleep in and food throughout!

My knowledge of planning has certainly expanded in a short space of time, I still feel there is a lot more for me to learn, and so I was somewhat nervous that the two days at our Chief Planners Conference would go over my head. Whilst I can’t say that I understood everything that was discussed, I did feel like I was able to keep up with the conversation.

Once I sat down on Thursday morning, I looked around the room and had a thought that these are the people who are creating and developing the country’s towns and cities for the future. As a non-planner, the planning sector can sometimes be seen as unsympathetic to the changes. However, hearing through-out the conference the many people referring to the reason that they got into planning was to make good places dispelled this view and made me realise that the objectives of planners and planning is to create happy and healthy communities.

The PAS team have really encouraged me to develop my understanding of planning, and I can honestly say that I am thoroughly enjoying it.. As part of my development, I would love to spend the day shadowing a planning officer. If you are able to have me for the day, please email

I look forward to seeing you all at the next PAS event!


Briefing the new NPPF

I was asked to speak to one of our regional groups (HIOWLGA – don’t ask me to pronounce it) last week. It’s a group of leaders and CExs and they wanted me to take them through the implications of the new NPPF / NPPG.

There is nothing like the polite attention of a room full of clever people to force a bit of introspection and reflection. What do I really think they should know about the NPPF ? And how important is it all really when compared to the intense gloom and doom over finances ?

I don’t think it’s good enough for the proper website, but I’ll pop it here in case anyone else finds something in it to reuse. One of the CEx told me afterwards that he had already been briefed on the NPPF, but compared to how I’d approached it there had been a veil of gauze over the issues. I think it was a compliment – at least that is how I took it.

Sorry there aren’t any speakers notes – the slides are fairly self-explanatory and I just took people through it in my customary manner. Lots of questions but I don’t think my answers were good enough to be worth setting out here.

Performance Statistics, Designation & PAS Crystal Ball(s) 2018

Latest performance statistics are out (20/09/2018)
The latest stats were published yesterday MHCLG. Only one more quarter to go, and that is almost over (to end of September).

PAS Support (1) – get ahead of the game – avoiding designation
PAS’ job on Designation is to help councils with how to recognise, measure and most importantly how to avoid it (I wrote a blog last year on that very matter – it’s still relevant just move the dates referred to on one year).

I’ve updated the PAS ‘Crystal Balls’; one for speed, one for quality. They let you measure performance in as close to real time as you care to feed them your most up to date performance data. I’d encourage ALL councils to use the crystal balls as part of their performance management framework – don’t get caught out – poor performance often ‘creeps up’ and over a 2 year reporting period just a couple of poor quarters can really drag overall performance down leaving little time to recover.

PAS Support (2) – get ahead of the game – how best to respond if you’re in danger
If you are a head of planning I will most likely have written to you earlier this year if I had concerns about your performance, offering a menu of support including FREE help to:

• re-check your PS1/2 data submissions (you’ll not be surprised to learn that most I check have errors)
• review DM process efficiency if you are failing on the Speed measure
• review committee operation and decision making if you are failing on the Quality measure.

The 2 year reporting period means new councils can appear on my radar each time the government publishes the latest statistics – so keep an eye on your inbox in the next week.

Quality of decisions assessment – warrants a special mention
The Quality measure is still fairly new and it has a number of confusing elements to how it functions and the assessment period it uses (which is not the same as the speed measures). Lots of us are still not 100% clear on how it operates – you’re not alone – have a look at a blog I did attempting to explain the quality measure here and how one council I was impressed with tries to stay ahead of things here.

Have a look at/use the Crystal Balls and let me know how you get on/what you think.


Notes on the Housing Delivery Test and Action Plans


Ever since the Housing Delivery Test (HDT) was mooted in the “right homes in the right places” Housing White Paper we have been trying to get our heads round what is means in practice.

We have been nibbling away at this with pilot councils of various shapes and sizes for almost a year and we are a few weeks away from publishing our thoughts on how councils should respond to this new requirement. In advance of the “proper” versions here is what I have learned along the way.

Is the Housing Delivery Test a good thing ?

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