development management – planning on the front foot

I was a bit irritated by the recent article  on development management by Croft and Sheppard in the TCPA journal, but it has prompted me to think again about DM in the context of the new world as characterized by the draft NPPF.  The understanding that development management is foremost about proactive work and problem solving seemed absent in this article.

Being in the hub if the wheel is not what DM is about if  it’s just acting as a means of transmitting stresses from one place to another. The DM officer needs to be more active than that.  The Killian Pretty recommendations accepted that DM approaches have a big role in making planning more responsive to development needs and the draft PPS on development management was clear about the focus on delivery.  The draft PPS also started the reconsideration of  some of the “bigger world”  issues that  should be  given more weight in DM decision making, allowing for emerging policies and responses to current circumstances to have some weight when considered against out of date development plan policies.

So now we have the new presumption in favour of sustainable development.  Whatever else this is, it is surely a warning shot that planning, in this spatial but impecunious public sector world,  isn’t demonstrating its value enough. Planning needs to act more in the role of development leaders.

Sure DM is about not allowing the worst to get built  – and yes, I agree with those who propose that a reference to this should be added in to the DM section of the NPPF.  But the greater value is in being active about shepherding investment towards what the community need/want, given the constraints of what we have – geographically, socially and economically.

In particular the work that I have been doing with the planning benchmark ( the biggest survey of planning services ever – the PAS/CIPFA Summer Benchmark of over 200 LPAs)  has prompted some uncomfortable considerations around  the perceived value of some of the work that is held dear to the heart of local government DM players – officers and councillors, both. It is leading us on to the  models of delivery and  improvement work that The Mighty Hutch has also been drawn to blog about.  But with a DM hat on, I think the big issue for local government to grapple with is proportionality.

Think about the doomsday scenario:  What if the government draws back from the user pays principle of local fee setting? Is your cash strapped local authority really going to want to spend council tax payers money on making up the difference between the fee and the cost of dealing with dormers?

Much of the cost of dealing with small scale planning proposals is in the administration of the process. NI 157 and its forebears has left a legacy of way more thought being given to process over content and time spent on actually improving proposals as opposed to jumping through the procedural hoops is minimal for  too many planning applications. Making sure that the consultation letters have been registered, listing the policies that might be relevant, copy and pasting up some evaluation from the report on a similar proposal and perusing the lists of standard conditions – there are good reasons for doing these tasks, but  this is more about risk avoidance than protecting and guiding the spatial development of the area.

So why, when the professional judgment component of current processes is so low, are councillors and officers still reluctant to relinquish control in favour of just setting out good reliable local rules for small scale developments?  Maybe its just that culture change is a slow process andCornwall’s  Carnon Downs project (part of the PAS prompting and support for innovation in DM) needs  to be proved a success with the community before others will be tempted to try it out.  Swindon’s other more ambitious LDO project  (still in development) which links the LDO for household extensions into a better  value, seamless planning and building control process is a more ambitious look at  realigning value and cost.  This will take a good proportion of the most routine work with the least component of professional added value right out of the planning bureaucracy.

The compensation for doing less of the less valuable, is being released to do doing more of the more valuable faciliatory work;  problem solving and rebuilding the process of planning from opportunity to delivery.   I see this as fitting in neatly with what the Coalition Government wants from planning.  PAS and the the Planning Officers Society worked to define characteristic DM approaches through a series of specific tell tale practices.  Foreshadowing the localism bill provisions , these included the freer involvement of councillors in expressing opinions and being more active local champions  for positive planning outcomes in their community.   Working better in partnership with local community to deliver and achieve objectives, has always been part of the approach (see the PAS video of Allerdale’s DM response to their floods).    Proactive identification of sites for specific community needs and pulling the both private and public investors together to bring these forward is another characteristic DM approach that presaged the community right to build provisions to some extent.  LDO’s to deliver strategic objectives has influenced the thinking on the delivery of the enterprise zones.  More time spent on engaging with the community on what they want schemes to do for them and where possible finding design solutions is more satisfying all round that mediating between individual neighbours.

In a time when money is short and all applicants are not always paying the real cost of their applications – the money being put into planning by the council tax payer should be going on more productive work than administrative bureaucracy .  In the case of development management, spend the available resources where they will count towards improving prosperity and better environments.

Meanwhile, anticipating my next blog, when I will talk about what seems to bug customers most about the existing planning services – answer the phones, don’t change your mind between pre-app and application conversations, and don’t use conditions as a safety net – not hot new management theory – but sure to pay dividends with many of the critics.

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