Planning Advisory Service doesn’t advertise. If it did, I reckon an ‘advertorial’ would be appropriate and what follows is my attempt at writing one. It’s aimed primarily at those that could benefit from our support, but also at ourselves. You see, no matter how many hours of chin stroking in locked rooms we do putting our service plan together, there is always the nagging doubts… ‘have we got it right’?… ‘Do councils actually want what we’re offering?’… and the scary one; ‘are we relevant’?
I have just returned from a Peer Challenge at a really good council in the North of England. The myriad of interviews, document reading, tours and presentations that inform the review gave me the opportunity to assess, first hand, how relevant PAS services are. And I am going to slap PAS on the back and say well done. So, if you can’t bear self- congratulatory spiel look away now, if however you are interested in how PAS can help councils with some real examples, swallow hard and keep reading.
Heads of Planning are BUMs
That’s Business Unit Managers. When asked ‘what takes up your working day’? The Head of Planning responded: HR stuff, restructuring, workflow analysis, fees preparation, benchmarking, meeting with the accountant, rarely any case work. They’re managing a business. The daily work involves asking; What work is coming in? What resources do I have to deal with it? How much does it really cost? How do I measure success? Can we do it better?
Service managers are increasingly finding themselves in a position where they are told to save £x and are left to figure out how best to do it. Often, the most natural response to this is a headcount review. This can take large chunks of cost out of a service, but is a bit of a blunt instrument and, (in my opinion) should either be a last resort, or otherwise only (and always) be one aspect of a considered and well-evidenced range of cost saving considerations.
Through the PAS benchmarking club and improvement support offer, service managers are not abandoned to do this thinking on their own. We can help create the data to support decision-making by helping councils establish the costs of individual aspects of their service. Using evidence, supplemented by workflow data, councils can properly consider how well they are using resources and evaluate the different options for how they deliver the service.
There is no doubt about the pressing need to get your core strategy in place. The Government are saying it, and my colleagues and have done a much better job of explaining why it’s important so I am not going to bang that drum. These messages have not gone unnoticed in my peer challenge council, and the service is under (healthy) pressure from their leadership to deliver and quickly. They are putting a really great Core Strategy together, and have set themselves an ambitious publication schedule. They are doing everything right but they could use some help on key resource intensive aspects e.g. evidence base, to give them that added confidence around their timetable. Add in a bit of peer support to cast a critical but friendly eye over the thing at key stages and things start to feel a little more comfortable. Once again PAS plan making direct support is a fantastic and timely offer to them.
Infrastructure planning / CIL – pulling it all together when time is tight
My peer challenge council is facing many tensions around the provision of infrastructure. A major challenge for them is how to bring forward a regionally significant, infrastructure-sparse, edge-of-town site, while remaining loyal to a firm policy-backed committment to town centre regeneration (and the significant investment required in existing and new infrastructure to attract development in).
These tensions have magnified for them the importance of getting the Infrastructure Delivery Plan (IDP) and preparation for the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), right. What can happen at a time of reduced resources and a tight policy production timetable, is that some aspects of policy productions fall behind the pace. I have no doubt that this place will really benefit from our CIL work which means with time and resources tight, they won’t have to start thinking about CIL from scratch.
Councillors, neighbourhoods, localism
My recent experience has also confirmed to me the value of PAS support for councillors. The community leadership role is crystallizing around neighbourhood planning and demands on the service by residents such as enforcement are providing the challenge. For my subject council, add to this a planning committee that is finding its structure challenged by the evolving nature and volume of the applications it handles, and you have an opportunity to identify some clear areas for support.
While there is a place for the ‘what’s it all about’ / ‘introduction to’ types of training and support, we are slowly moving into the ‘how do I react to this and manage expectations’? scenarios for councillors. What does ‘taking a hardline on enforcement’ actually mean? Unless you understand a bit about how enforcement operates, its powers and limitations, how are you going to manage community expectations? And then what do you do when approached about neighbourhood planning? Councillors need to be confident about their role in the delivery of planning in their places, and more than ever, they need the benefit of their peers’ experience.
The PAS delivery approach to councillor skills and training (independently produced, well researched material, leadership academy sessions and access to experienced and empathetic councillor peers) can make the difference when trying to engage councillors. Mix in a little planning reform know-how and you have a powerful councillor support offer.
Challenging yourself in challenging times
I’ll end where I began – Peer Challenge. If your service is too stretched, beleaguered or busy to consider one, then you could probably benefit from one.
I have a lot of time for councils that have the foresight to invest in challenging themselves precisely at the moment when many would batten down the hatches and just ride the storm. The council I have just visited have restructured, are in the middle of working out how best to deliver the service and still have a core strategy to deliver. But they have, through the peer challenge process, demonstrated to staff that they are interested in making change work, and that they are interested in what staff have to say about and contribute to it.
I am a bit happier about what we do. It won’t change the fact that every time I spend any significant period with real people (local government planners) it scares my how detached I can become in very short periods of time. But just for now I am quietly confident that PAS is involved in the right things.