We ran an eye-wateringly big benchmark club last year. It was an evolution of work we were already doing with a bunch of councils, and was given extra oomph when the government hinted that councils required a method for setting their own planning fees. To get the thing on its feet, Phillipa, Martin and I have behaved like benevolent dictators, taking many decisions on behalf of the membership. Most councils took part, and thousands of planners recorded their time for a few weeks. You can see a sample output here.
It was never our intention to “own” the benchmark. That’s not how we do things. We held the first session of the benchmark steering group last week. This is how we’re going to give leadership of the club to real people in real councils. I’m not going to go through the detail of our discussions, although we’ll make them available somewhere else. The interesting thing for me was watching how a dozen clever, articulate and sensible people came together and took responsibility for the development of their annual benchmark. I think that inadvertently Planning finds itself again at the vanguard of how public services are changing.
Of course, the irony of PAS releasing control of the benchmark via a meeting where we set the agenda was lost on no one. How did it go ? The steering group was very clear about:
- Year one of the benchmark had been good. Not perfect, but good. It represented progress that should not be wasted. It was already part of councils’ service planning processes and used to make improvement decisions as well as fostering new and productive relations between councils themselves.
- We should not give up on fees. No one was particularly clear they understood what the problems were, but we would continue to have a fee-setting component. Probably simpler than it was before.
- The application bits of the benchmark were strongest, and where we’d struggled to find anything to count (policy) it was weakest. But again we were not prepared to give up, just determined to improve.
- The benchmark could be extended quite simply to provide a better measure of quality than the dreaded NI157 and its unpopular target culture
- With a little judicious thought we had a great way to understand the impact on departments of the latest changes in planning – like Neighbourhood Planning, and CIL collection / monitoring.
- We also need to get better at helping people use the benchmark. If you grabbed that sample report you’ll see it’s 40-odd pages of dense stuff. People need help picking the signal from the noise. And we’re trying a new way to do it by extending the idea of CIPFA’s families and providing support to the whole family together.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. And some of the difficulties were in areas that I’d not expected.
- The steering group wanted to debate matters of principle. Routinely I would try to refocus the conversation by asking “and so what is it that you would count, or not count, in the next benchmark ?“. At the time I suppose I’d considered this simply a product of having a roomful of principled planners. In hindsight, I suspect I’d over-estimated the amount of space and time that working planners get to consider their profession, and its practical expression. I can see value in debating the purposes that lie behind activities.
- The group, even in its inaugural session, is starting to pull the benchmark in different directions. I think there are now 4 different ‘flavours’ to the benchmark, although they all end up producing a comparable output. This balancing act between the needs of the various types of councils is going to require constant vigilance, and the expertise of CIPFA, to prevent fragmentation.
- Getting through the theatre of debate is one thing, but actually doing stuff is another. At one point I asked for volunteers, prepared to put a bit of time aside to look after the various parts of the benchmark. I suggested that the job went beyond having a say in what was captured in the benchmark, but there was a far more interesting follow-up to be done understanding and explaining (to the club and to the world) what we’d learnt from the data. It’d be bloody brilliant, practically a folk hero role. After 15 mins of discussions I had to point out that only one person had actually volunteered any time.
So, to bring all this together I think we may have a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate what sector-led improvement looks like. It won’t be straightforward, and I will try to use any remaining influence I have to keep it on track through three things:
Making progress on localising planning fees
We need to use the benchmark to model a rational and transparent way to set fees. We failed last time because (in my view) we focussed solely on the costs and failed to put a clear “service guarantee” alongside it. And it was too complicated.
It just makes sense on many levels to let councils take responsibility for their costs. The fears that they will somehow stifle economic recovery if so empowered are unfounded – or at least misplaced. Compare and contrast the percentage of development cost taken up by fee and by CIL charge. Fees are just tiddly. It’s an issue of trust. We must extend the benchmark to stop some places just making it up when it comes to their pre-application charging as a necessary first step in having credibility.
Using our collective powers for good
There are two parts to this – policing and promoting. We will be issuing some form of ‘accreditation’ as part of the benchmark in 2012. We’d previously steered clear, as it can feel uncomfortably like the audit commission reinvented. Nonetheless, details tbc, if you can’t demonstrate to your family that you played the game then then you won’t get a report. And some places will have a really quite difficult job defending their corporate approach to overheads.
Just as controversially we need to push the makers of planning regulations. It’s clear from our debate that planning could be carried out more cheaply and with less angst if the system were made clearer and more local. Councils have almost no opportunity to exercise common sense and reduce red tape. We should use the benchmark to paint a “what if” future, and highlight the opportunities for reducing the burden.
It’s so easy to keep extending the benchmark with new ideas. We’ve got to keep focused on the value of the benchmark, and that is certainly not in measuring everything. We’ve got a steering group, and an attendant risk of lots of cooks preparing a single broth.
The benchmark is young, and so it can grow a little. But soon, every bright new idea is going to be forced to wrestle with the established old ideas because there is only room for so many. The bigger we make the dataset the more it’s going to have to do to repay the investment in time. I’ve always been clear that the benchmark needs to have an improvement value beyond allowing councils to set fees. But it cannot be much more than a mirror for a council – and we need to remember how easy it is to collapse under the weight of complexity. Let’s keep it simple, stupid. This goes double for fees.