I was waiting for a planner friend the other day, having arranged to catch up one evening. The phone rang – it was her apologising for being late. The reason ? She was working on an application that was about to go out of time and this was the final evening to finish the report. It was a wake-up call for me – I’ve been so busy being “anti” NI157 I’d missed the fact it was a strong and simple enough incentive to get people to stay in the office until 8pm. If I was a developer, waiting on a permission, I’d want people to delay meeting up with friends until they’d finished my application.
What is a good service ?
After a slow start, our work on ‘managing an excellent planning service‘ (MEPS) is going well now. In brief, it retrospectively takes 4 or 5 different views of performance by extracting all the data from an LPA’s back office. One of the many interesting things is comparing an LPA’s performance as measured by NI157 and the more nuanced view provided by MEPS.
One of the things I should have told my friend is that deadlines (even strict deadlines as per NI157) should not be allowed to drive performance. If you are letting a ticking clock inform your workload management you have already lost. You’ve missed the opportunity to arrange the work in it’s most efficient way. You can tell the authorities with good customer service – they are the ones issuing decisions as early as they can and (I have no evidence but I hope) arranging patterns of work as cheaply as possible.
This needs to be taken even further. One of the traps that MEPS (and all the other ‘process improvement’ things out there) falls into is to treat the transaction of a planning application as one of the givens. In fact, it is much more helpful to realise that the transaction is about getting stuff built. It may be that this process takes two refusals, two permissions, 24 conditions and many approvals. Wouldn’t it be better if there was some way of recognising this and then doing something about it ?
To this end we are doing a couple of things, with a view to supporting LPAs next year. The first is some fairly pure research & development, investigating patterns of applciations, the value of pre-application, the use of conditions. This should allow us to understand the status quo a little better. The other is to frame how LPAs might call on packages of support on determining planning applications. My first go looks like this:
The orange boxes represent our existing support on plan-making. They are designed to cover each stage and the key skills required. The yellow boxes are what we might parcel up to support LPAs. Included is one to ensure that the process is slick and efficient.
To return to my late friend, then. One of the things we need to be clear on is that moving away from NI157 does not mean that the ‘drive’ to turn stuff around disappears. One of the fantastic things I’ve seen myself with some of the MEPS authorities is the keenness with which they want to understand what is going on and how they can manage better. In amongst the smoke and fuss of the ‘Seddon vs the audit commission’ on the LGC website, there is one quiet but profound question.
What measures are you using to understand and improve performance?
I don’t suggest that our new yellow boxes will have all the answers, but I am clear that we need to ensure that application handling times do not dip. One of our measures should be time, and we need to believe it enough so that some times we’re prepared to drive ourselves and our staff that little bit extra.
My revelation, though, as I sat in the pub on my own is that there is an even more important game. It is not enough to think of handling a single application – our goal in managing development properly is to drive down the number of applications required to make things happen. Our work should be to reduce the work. More on this soon.