As PAS enters its 7th year, I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve achieved, what we’ve learnt and what we need to do next. It’s certainly been fun for me – but has this model – a nationally funded, local government improvement organisation for planning – worked for our funders and for you?
The fact that we’ve got further funding in this climate is a fairly explicit sign that a) somebody thinks we’re worth it and b) they still think that there’s still a need for us. And our impact assessments indicate that we’ve helped authorities to reduce costs, improve efficiency, enhance capacity and skills, and provide a better planning service.
Over the years we’ve become a familiar and much used part of the planning landscape – or so the evidence suggests. We’ve had some kind of contact with every local planning authority – from councils, through development corporations to national parks. Usually more than once (90% of those asked had used us at least twice). Some Councils are such regular users (thanks) that they really should get a loyalty card (over half of those asked use PAS at least once a month). Awareness of us and our reputation with you has steadily increased (85% of those asked are “consistently satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the information and support they’ve used from us). And many of you gave kind and appreciative words and offers of lobbying when we weren’t sure if our funding was going to continue. It gives me a warm fuzzy glow when I’m out and about and people say kind and appreciative things about the work the team and I do.
But have we done what we were set up to do?
Looking back at the priorities for our support work, you can see how things have changed since 2004. The first job for PAS was around the BV109 performance targets. Feels like ancient history now. We worked a lot with the then standards authorities – with councillors and officers – to unpick performance and do what what was then called ‘process re-engineering’. And it worked. Along with your hard work and of course the financial incentives via the then PDG. Whether you agreed with them or not, peformance against those targets significantly improved. It may be that there are bigger things to now worry about but you don’t hear many complaints about time taken to deal with applications anymore. It might not perfect for all applicants, and there are still some ‘customer service’ issues to deal with, but whether it was with or without PAS help, in respect of that performance indicator it feels as though it’s job pretty much done.
Then along came LDFs, which was a big change for many, a new system – not tested or piloted – and a lot for officers and councillors to get to grips with. Our job was to help you crack on with them – to not grow the task or make it a lenghty and expensive one. We developed our modules, came out to hundreds of you, helped many and scared others. Feedback – both on the day and when you asked about it later, showed that this support had value – by saving you time and money. Perhaps by giving clarity and focus to what you needed to do and therefore save wasting future time, by getting you off the wrong path and pointing you in the right direction, or by enabling you to do work by yourselves that you would otherwise pay consultants to do. Latest stats show that around 90 LDFs have been adopted (which because of sharing means more than 90 authorities) and another 30 or so are with PINs. So still a way to go – and because of what we see is a pressing need to get a strategic local plan in place before the Localism Bill is enacted and Neighbourhood Plans can become part of the planning framework, we aren’t stopping this area of work yet.
And now we find ourselves at another time of change – predominantly around the Localism Bill, but with other influences as well – the reduction in budgets and need to understand costs and resourcing better is a big part of our work. Which is why benchmarking, fees, and models of delivery will feature heavily – along with community infrastructure levy and Neighbouhood planning – in our programme for the next year.
And what have we learnt? Well, I’ve learnt that:
So I’d like to say thank you to all of you who have used us, helped us deliver stuff, challenged and prodded us – it sounds a bit cliched, but without you we just wouldn’t be much good. And we certainly wouldn’t have got more funding. But ultimately, we’ve got to demonstrate that the decision to fund us for a further period was the right one. Can we do better as a national organisation, than if the money was somehow given direct to local authorities themselves to support planning. Let’s hope we can do so. Look forward to seeing you soon.