You can’t cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore

At our ‘Benchmarking – So What?’ events back in February I happily listened to planners talking about life after (government set) targets. Despite the target-based regime being declared dead over half a year ago, this was the first time I felt a genuine desire among planners to create something new and different. Printed on a wall at one venue was one of those philosophical quotations – something like ‘you can’t cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore’. I’m no philosopher but our ‘shore’ has been the national indicator set but now I am sensing that planners are beginning to imagine something different.

Not just an accredited agent scheme
We (planning advisory service) are talking to a number of authorities about what ‘different’ could look like. One of the conversations is about encouraging better applications from agents. And, before you ask, no – I am not referring to an accredited agents’ scheme – these may serve a purpose somewhere, but need resources to set up and manage, criteria for accreditation agreed, and what do you do when a customer isn’t happy with one of ‘your’ accredited agents? No, I prefer an idea that some councils are thinking of trying that involves publishing information on how quickly agents get decisions and their success rate. The publishing of real data like this would act as an incentive among agents to want to improve their ‘performance’. To my mind it’s a cheap, quick and non-judgmental approach, and allows the applicant to make an objective decision on which agent they use.

A council we have been working with on our benchmarking project has decided to give it a go and asked us to help them work something up. My colleague richardprichard came up with this:

The agent plot explained (by RP)
This plot divides out the agents into three broad categories. It makes sense both for people choosing an agent and for making comparisons to distinguish between the straightforward and complex. I’ve used average fee as an imperfect proxy for this and broken the agents into three camps – “small” <£150, "medium" < £300 and large where the average fee is over £300.
The real agent's names have been replaced with a code, and the size denotes how many applications they've submitted. There is a floor level of 5 to be called an "agent" in the first place.
If I were looking for an agent for my simple, householder scheme then I'd start by calling agent A06 – 94% approvals on 56 days. If I were looking for someone to look after a big scheme in this particular town I'd start with A22. Yes, you can see at a glance that A29 does more work – but they are slower and less successful delivering a permission. [note a separate post will cover some more of this – RP]

You can see that a small number of agents who submit low-value work perform very badly [note using fee in this way is not perfect, as some agents will probably specialise in heritage]. And yes, agent A03 really does specialise in getting quick refusals. Every time.

A plot, not the whole picture
The council will know who these agents are in a way that we can’t, so it may not be true that the best in our pictures really are the best – it may be that they specialise in adverts or something really easy / straightforward. This has created something really interesting – if I was shopping around for an agent I’d find this really useful. The icing on this cake and the thing that could make the thing really fly is that council (submitting applications to itself) has the worst statistics of all(!!).

It’s simple, cheap and free of many of the “accreditation” risks. However until a few weeks ago, most people I discussed this idea with has given me the impression that there is something about it that is a bit scary – can we really do that? I thought it was going to remain one of those ‘big ideas’ that never flew.

The agent’s forum
I was invited to an agent’s forum (good things) to see how it went down. I must admit, as the meeting started and I saw the whites of the agent’s eyes, I began to realize why this idea might be scary for councils – this is about the success of the agent’s business after all. This was the first forum held for well over a year, the  agenda was ambitious and the meeting was being hijacked by a number of awkward moments dealing with (far too many) day to day case-specific issues (good practice note: this is what happens if you leave too long a gap between your agent’s forums).

This was not a great build up for the ‘showcase’ item, the idea didn’t really get ‘positioned’ properly, appearing more like an ‘item of interest’ or an idle threat perhaps, but didn’t, I feel, leave the agents thinking that this was something the council was seriously considering. Hats off to this council though – while the reaction was disappointing, it certainly wasn’t a completely missed opportunity because the topic is now ‘out there’ as a thing to discuss in a more structured way.

Supporting a good idea
Importantly, this experience has taught me a valuable lesson for how we support councils with big ideas. It’s important for ideas like this to be introduced in the right setting, to be properly explained and to be allowed a proper amount of time to sink in, and for proper debate. So, I applaud this council for stepping out in this way and we will be continuing to support them with this but I have learned a big lesson – as we get more and more authorities interested in this idea, we need to pay more attention to understanding relationships between individual councils and their agents.

Closing point – don’t think this idea means the council doesn’t have to do anything but sit back and watch the bun fight. It will soon become clear how much of the responsibility for agent’s poor performance lies at the planning department’s door – are you managing a service that rewards agent’s that want to do the right thing?


5 thoughts on “You can’t cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore

  1. I will do a geek post on other ways to model the data but the most important takeaway for me is this:

    Done well, this clarity cuts both ways.

    By this I mean that being able to compare between authorities is just as important. That would allow agent A24 to complain to the authority that only 12% of applications were valid on receipt – compared to the 94% valid on receipt in the authority next door.

    This is not a stick with which to beat agents. Or at least, if it is, it is also a stick with which to beat fussy / tickbox / generally bolshy planning authorities.

    That’s why good agents and good authorities should welcome this.

  2. I was disappointed when our local agents didn’t really appreciated the improvements in performance we have managed to achieve. However, when I think about it, why would they? It makes no difference to them whether a decision is made in 6 weeks or 10 weeks, they haven’t got the builder lined up, and they haven’t been out choosing the curtains.

    Their priority is to get a decision to pass onto the client with as little work as possible, that’s how they make their money. We impact on that by asking for more detail before we register applications, or by negotiating amendments which cause them extra work. It is only when the client complains that the time we take impacts on their work, and their costs.

    Cynically you could argue that getting a refusal can actually get them more work, because the client then pays them to submit an appeal on their behalf, and if that is dismissed they then get even more work by submitting a new revised application to deal with the reasons for refusal.

    The things that we have done to streamline our procedures haven’t affected the things that the local agents actually care about, so for them things haven’t changed. In fact things have got worse over the years because we expect a higher standard of application at the start, which is more work for them.

    We are seriously considering publishing this type of data so that applicants can make informed decisions about who they employ as their agents. The information is all out there in the public arena if someone could be bothered to go through all the applications on the internet, we’d just be assembling it.

    By doing that there would then be a big incentive for agents to submit applications that are valid on receipt, and that are likely to get an approval. They would get more work if they were getting better results. That would mean that finally we’d all be working towards the same goal – quick approvals.

  3. Thanks Ray – I see your point – its the customer of your customer that ‘feels’ the time taken. Not having been at the sharp end of this, I wonder what agents tell their clients about how quickly the permission will arrive?

    I reckon if what you say is true then it makes it even more important how the ‘performance’ message gets out and in front of the agent’s customers who are choosing who they use – as you say, within the agents’ community a fortnight/3 weeks may not matter but to the client it will (but maybe they don’t know what they can expect time-wise).

    Pulling it all together you (councils) need to demonstrate consistency (of approach and among officers), valuable pre-app, proportionate validation, reasonableness etc. If agents are to ‘feel’ benefit of your improved performance. As you turn stuff around quicker, you have more time to concentrate on these things (in theory!?).

  4. Pingback: It’s not you; is it me? « Planning Advisory Service

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