Everyone involved in planning will have been ecstatic when the news of another review of the planning system was announced a while ago. Known after its two leads, the Killian & Pretty review is a “call for solutions” – I’m not sure whether that is refreshing or slightly scary in a “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” kind of way. PAS has put forward a measured, thoughtful and balanced submission. This, then, is my slanted, partial and faintly exasperated set of personal opinions.
To sidle up to the issue, I was lucky enough to receive support to do a management qualification with the OU over the last couple of years. It was fantastic, a modern take on “Management” that took care to critically review just about every next-big-idea from the last 100 years and instead reinforce some basic principles. Although it’s now finished, I still have some cribsheets and notes on the wall by my desk, including what someone called the ‘famous five’. These were the five key concepts that ran throughout the course, the intention being to shoehorn at least a couple of them into each question at examination use them as standard markers when considering situations and change management. They are
1. Multiple perspectives : the idea that ‘performance’ means different things to different people – e.g. shareholders and employees. There isn’t one correct way, and each perspective needs to be seen in its context.
2. Holistic approach : managing a business to generate cash does not mean that activities that don’t generate cash can be ignored. Balancing the various internal & external forces and opportunities is required in the short and long term. Not easy.
3. Stakeholders : you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them. Might as well recognise them, and try to get the win-win thing going.
4. Goal Congruence : employees work better if they can see how their own goals (day by day, year by year) are linked to broader organisational and even social goals
5. Cross-functional approaches : don’t silo, and ensure everyone is working to the same goals
To this list of five I’m going to add one more – the first year of the course had only a ‘famous one’:
6. Feedback loop : You can make all the plans you like, but if you don’t pay attention long enough to understand what then goes on to happen you should just go home.
In the interests of brevity, I’m going to take only items 1 and 6 forward. The remaining points are left as an exercise for the reader.
Feedback loop (no. 6)
What is planning for ? No – I don’t mean in an overly philosophical sense. Leaving aside the broadest aspects of land markets, class war and taxation it is about real things in the real world happening. Buildings get demolished, new ones built, land use adapting as our society changes.
So, a management qualification view of our system might assume it looks a bit like this :
(I know that people exist who monitor the implementation of some of the larger schemes. I know that the AMR exists. I know that the housing pipeline exists for the larger sites. Just bear with me)
The planning process goes to a great deal of time and expense issuing pieces of paper with intrinsically zero worth. It’s a system that creates enormous wealth by collective hallucination. And for many planners, that appears to be where it stops. “I am a planner – I issue planning decisions”
However, think of what the mythical loop above might do. In the short term it would tell you
- whether your policies were doing the job of addressing the needs you identified at step 1
- who actually built out the permissions you so expensively consider, and therefore a genuine ‘end-to-end’ view of the process.
- which policies keep getting knocked over at appeal
- what the yield of floorspace and rooms is going to be coming to market over the next few months, and therefore what the genuine impact on infrastructure will be
In the longer term really interesting stuff starts appearing
- which policies actually drive development towards more sustainable living without perverse outcomes
- which developers and developments are popular with real people, and represent a repeatable option
It sounds expensive and difficult, but much thinking about these issues happens already – just not in a joined up and routine way. Personally, I think the split between ‘Planning’ and ‘Building Control’ is not doing anyone any favours. I reckon a serviceable feedback loop is available there for about an extra 0.1% of effort.
One thing that K&P recognises explicitly is the series of perverse outcomes arising from the BVPI 109 culture. It’s a particular hobby horse of mine, so I’ll try to remain dispassionate.
I think there are very strong arguments against performance targets per se – there is a “systems thinking” position I first came across in the work of Deming that argues that holding individuals accountable for the performance of a system is just plain counter-productive. Nonetheless, it is my judgement that it would be politically inexpedient to officially lose the word ‘target’ in the planning world.
The answer, I’d suggest, is to recognise that there is no single measure of ‘performance’ that satisfies everyone. We need to throw away the current regime – for one very simple reason. The NI 157 works by getting all planning authorities to summarise their performance by reducing everything down to 3 numbers – their percentage compliance on major/minor/other applications with arbitrary time constraints. It disallows any other perspective than time – and a particularly singular and narrow view of time at that. Perverse outcomes ? we’re ready for you now.
In place of this aggregation at source, we need to harvest the detail. By collecting all* the information about an application centrally, we suddenly enable so many more ways of examining performance:
- house builders can look at how their applications get treated by different authorities
- residents concerned about their authority can compare their rate of refusal with others
- authorities themselves can benchmark themselves against their peers
The irony is that this approach will almost certainly be boiled down back into NI157 statistics for the first few quarters to allow for consistency of measure.
Expensive ? Difficult ? No. The current system feels like it is designed for a time of quill pens, when moving data from A to B was laborious and to be minimised. We just change the PS2 process from aggregation to uploading the key stats. In fact, if LPAs made their data available via REST the data could be collected, sliced and diced by anyone at any time.
The small amount of contact I’ve had with the K&P review proved to me that everyone involved has their heart firmly in the right place. I’ve almost managed to let my prickliness at some of the language and bias evident in their document leave me. My exasperation is, I suppose, down to the process. Here we have a bunch of people who clearly believe that planning is not a value-adding process, but rather than address the core issue (do we understand what value the planning process is supposed to have ? do we measure against it ?) we’re tinkering with the boxes. I think that most planners would welcome the process of a value-driven review. I suspect that many others in the industry might not like some of the answers.
* No I don’t mean “all” the information. I mean all the information that wouldn’t lead to fraud, spamming and other bad stuff.