Survival skills for planners

I heard Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralization speak earlier this week and while its clearly it’s all change again on Planet Planning, he was enthusiastic (he said) about planners taking on a more facilitative role in making sure that the development  investment delivered the place that communities want.  Unpicking development plans and reinventing them to weight neighbourhood desires more heavily is one thing, but he was also talking about collaborative working between local authorities and communities to enable and encourage development investment in the right stuff to meet the whole range of goals.

He talked about the negativity of adversarial development control  (my words would be squashing the ability of planning to innovate and problem solve) and the need to look at and persuade the community to look at  development differently.   While the Minister wasn’t giving away much detail – I was busy filling in the gaps with a description of development management!

 We have been talking up this approach for three years now.  The supported learning groups that POS have facilitated been wildly encouraged or deeply frustrated at the difficulty of changing attitudes, sometimes in equal measure and sometimes both at the same time.  But over the whole country, I have been interested to know what the pace of change has been. 

 PAS recently commissioned a survey to find out whether Councils had changed their practices to take on development management  ways of working.   DM was never intended to be a one size fits all approach,  but we used a few practices to indicate aspects of a transformation. The result is a half full glass:

 My cynical friend who foresaw little change and less measurable impact is rejoicing in a half full glass of planners’ innovation.

 I, the optimist who likes to think of planners clamoring to be part of the big picture in local authorities,  am confronted with rather less of the bubbly stuff in my glass than I’d hoped. 

The Good News!

Following the messages in “Open Source Planning” the persistent rumour is that pre-application engagement will be given enhanced importance in the Bill.

Here at last we have some proof that pre-app discussions do deliver on the promises:

  • Overall, 74% of major applications considered by those  LPAs with the figures available had some degree of pre-application engagement, and…. 
  • 82% of applications submitted following  pre-application advice were approved.
  • For applications without pre-submission advice, this rate was only 62%.  
  • Across LPAs where all major applications involve pre-application advice, the average approval rate is 91%.

 The vast majority (98%) of those interviewed offer structured pre-application  discussions on the basis of a criteria set out for the public to see. 

 Giving members a chance to help shape schemes is an indictor of a development management approach and one that the government has been making headlines about.  The survey found:

  • 60% of LPAs now have provision within the authority for elected members to be involved in pre-submission discussions, and   
  • 21% of major applications now have some member involvement at the pre-application stage.

 Many authorities reported that the involvement of members was a fairly recent development following changes in the guidance on probity and some also reported that they were taking a slowly approach to its introduction – both at the behest of officers and members themselves.  The challenge to officers will be to provide the support that the members need to be truly effective in their role in their area.

 We also asked questions that were designed to tell us more about how outward looking the planning services were in terms of the DM job of facilitating good places.

More than 50% of authorites reported that planners usually had some involvement in the council project teams to deliver important local schemes, even if only 39% could be said to be full members of the teams.  That’s a big step forward from the first PAS events on development management where we were routinely told that “ the schemes are cooked up elsewhere and then passed to the planners to approve the application – with or without community engagement”.  While this  result doesn’t indicate an across the board changed of image for planning  from the regulator to the  problem solver there are certainly congratulations for the LPAs who have been able to show their colleagues how useful it is to have a planner on the team!

But when asked about how the council’s overall objectives were taken into account in doing the “day job” of making recommendations on development proposals  the survey found that only 11% of the respondents always consider the contribution towards overall council objectives, and  66% have included that kind of assessment in their reports very ocassionally. 

This is a real concern in these days of belt tightening.  What value the service that doesn’t see any place for the council’s wider objectives in shaping the way it works and the decisions it makes? 

Predictably, if there is a problem with LPAs not liaising well within the council, the issue is still greater when it comes to sharing information about developments outside the council.   With a view to the future, the need for DM planners to be involved in local forums will be equally important as local policies evolve under the influence of Local Enterprise Partnerships and these partnerships look to see whether new developments are coming on line to support local economic prosperity. 

The stuff that’s not happening 

Now that the national key performance indicators about are consigned to history and there is a chance to evaluate the quality aspects of what planning is achieving rather than measuring the bureaucracy, there is very little evidence in this survey of planners getting to grips with the challenge.

Only 80% of respondents to this DM survey even knew that they produced an annual monitoring report for planning, although almost all LAs have done.  And only 19% knew that development impact information was incorporated in these reports on what the planning service was achieving. 

Most of the reasons cited for not taking a more active approach to evaluating the impacts of development were about this not being a requirement and therefore not worth spending shared resources on.

How are council leaders going to know that planning is good value for money unless the planners get better at showing the impact of the work they do?  It shouldn’t be a 100 page door stopper.  My advice is to pick out the five changes that are most important for your council to see happen and explain how planning decisions in the last year have helped to bring those about.

Say nothing and others will take credit for your work.  Evaluate nothing and you wont learn.

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