One message we have been banging on about for the last couple of years is “get on and make a plan”. The NPPF and transitional arrangements are only the latest reason to mean this message is true.
We are putting the greatest share of our resources into helping councils get a plan in place. But which councils needs the help most ? People at the final stages are all taking advantage of PINS excellent front-loading visits, but what about people further back in the queue ? Many councils are completely competent, and we should focus our attention on those that are struggling and need some outside assistance.
Spotting strugglers should be reasonably easy. There is a published timetable for making a plan. It’s called the Local Development Scheme (LDS). One probable indication of a project in trouble is missing the milestones as set out in the LDS.
But very few, if any, Councils hit their original timetable as expressed in the LDS. In hindsight, they all suffered from optimism bias, and failed to reflect the vicissitudes of life in a changeable, resource constrained environment. We’ve all seen ‘Grand Designs’ (home of the “we’ll be in by xmas” line), and we understand how human these sorts of failure are. But we need 330-odd local plans and each one is itself a similar investment to a Grand Designs project. We in local government can get better at this.
The Planning Fallacy (or why the LDS is often just lies)
What’s happening has been called (by coincidence) the planning fallacy. This phrase has been coined* to describe plans and forecasts that:
- are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios
- could be improved by consulting the case statistics (time, money) of similar cases
Fortunately, we can mitigate the planning fallacy. As Bent Flyvbjerg snappily puts it “The prevalent tendency to underweight or ignore distributional information is perhaps the major source of error in forecasting. Planners should therefore make every effort to frame the forecasting problem so as to facilitate utilizing all the distributional information that is available“. He is talking about getting better at forecasting how long an olympic stadium or HS2 will take to construct, but this is true for the process of making a local plan itself.
Put simply, we should use the actual, historical timetable of Councils with adopted plans to sense-check people’s LDS. Chances are, if it took 20 other councils an average of 9 months to get from stage ‘A’ to ‘B’ then your timetable of 6 weeks is naive. And if you’re allowing 12 months for a stage that your peers knocked out in 12 weeks then you might consider pulling your finger out.
And rather than simply measuring an end-to-end time, we can break it down into the key stages. So that we can understand and share how long each section actually took. These averages don’t replace the detailed planning and thinking that each council must do, but they provide an outside-in perspective that provides a benchmark to prevent unrealistic timetabling driven by the planning fallacy.
We will shortly have a new bunch of research people on our supplier framework. This will be my first job for one or two of them:
- We begin by defining classes. This means we group councils by type (districts / london / mets / parks etc). These classes dictate how the information is collected and averaged.
- We collect data on how long it took councils within each class to actually make their plan. This is broken down into the 5 or 6 key stages of a plan. We do this by asking them, while it is fresh in their minds.
- Note that this is not a narrative. We’re not making case studies. We don’t care that Council ‘A’ had a change of political control, which is why they took so much time to get through Reg 28. This is about getting enough councils in the mix to get a decent average.
- We collect and publish. For each class of council we know how long it really took to go through each stage of making a plan.
- Now each council of the same class without a plan can sense-check its LDS. To put it in academic language they can do ”reference class forecasting‘. This means they can mitigate one of the biggest errors in forecasting. And, perhaps, we can become confident enough to attempt more joint plans.
What about updating a plan ?
Quite soon the bulk of councils will have a plan. But this approach will remain just as useful for people trying to answer the question “how long does it take to do a single issue review ?”. As they start to appear we’ll be doing some counting, and perhaps refining the reference classes a little.
So, if someone contacts you shortly to ask you about how your plan schedule really went please share. We’re not telling tales, just assembling some real world averages.
* This post borrows heavily from chapter 23 ‘The Outside View” of Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kaheman. The whole book, and particularly the middle section, I found really helpful and it is already scheduled for a repeat read.