In the olden days we had a standards regime. Back when I first joined local government it amounted to a “name and shame” process where the carrot was a financial reward (oh, those heady days of PDG) and the stick was to be on a list somewhere. The advice and support for a standards authority was mostly procedural. It focussed on streamlining process, thinking ahead on s106, minimising committee involvement and pruning the procedures manual.
It would be a mistake to treat designation as a warmed-up version of the standards regime. It is altogether more serious.
We’re starting to have the conversations with councils who may have been designated, and I’m finding it useful to anchor those conversations to three themes:
- Dealing with the issues that led to designation
- Interim arrangements for councils that are designated
- A management plan for designated councils
Yes, we need to identify and deal with the problems that led to designation in the first place but also careful thought needs to be given to the interim arrangements for what is hopefully just a year of being designated. Lastly, in recognition of the various actors in play (I’m trying not to use the word ‘stakeholder’) a council needs to wrap this all up in a management plan. I’ll step through them briefly:
1. Dealing with the issues that led to designation
There will be a range of issues, I’m sure, including old favourites as well as a side-helping of the injustice of retrospectively applied sanctions:
- section 106 agreements: getting them signed
- getting to “finish” when this entails CIL payments or similar
- pre-application advice and the benefits of front-loading
- consultee responses (statutory and otherwise)
- planning performance agreements / extension of time agreements
- the statistics themselves, and the dependability of an unmanaged back office system
- failures of the past, that are fixed now
- the “resources” thing
All of this needs to be reviewed and leads to an Action Plan. This has to be signed off by DCLG. This important document forms some kind of baseline and things-to-do list that will be considered when it comes time to think about de-designation.
2. Interim arrangements for councils that are designated
This is where lots of the new stuff appears
- Working with the planning inspectorate. Councils still need to carry out part of the process. Details are yet to be set down in the SI, but I’m guessing this will include consultation process and room & board for the inspector’s hearing (PINS “committee”).
- Dealing with the short-fall in income. Majors represent the only class of application that councils make profit on, so this is a double whammy. In fact, a triple whammy. You lose the profit, you lose the income and you keep some of the costs.
- Committee. If majors disappear what do work should they do ? My guess is that the inspector might welcome a single councillor to appear at the hearing. What about everybody else ? Perhaps committees should be disbanded, or find other things to do rather than continue to meet at the same frequency and scratch around for non-strategic applications to consider. Otherwise the committee will become used to dealing with the mundane, and might struggle to recalibrate to majors again.
- Staff – councils risk losing their majors, but what about the planners that work on them ? If you throw them out, you risk being able to demonstrate you can get your majors back inside a year. If you get them all doing fast track work they’ll stultify. It’s tricky. Lend them to a neighbour ? Work on that regeneration idea ? Give them a couple of council-owned sites each to reconfigure ?
It’s difficult to see any way that designation, if only for a year, is going to be anything other than financially very difficult. Biggest risk of all is a downward spiral. Best possible outcome is that the development community recognise that what looked like “slowness” was problem solving and determination. I guess in those places it will remain business as usual.
3. Management plan for designated councils
This is new. No council has ever been designated before, and the implications on the behaviour of developers, PINS and committees are unknown. Councils need to keep various aspects of this under review, and need to deal with the uncertainty by communicating clearly in various directions:
- Developers – what is your message to investors ? Do you still welcome applications ? What advantages will developers have by coming to you rather than PINS ? Some of this will need spelling out if you are to avoid PINS becoming the default planning authority in your place
- Staff – all of these changes will have an impact on the workload of your staff. You’ll need their support and flexibility, and therefore you’ll need to keep them involved.
- Budget – don’t expect to get through this without a fighting fund. No planning department can lose majors income and survive unscathed. You’ll need to model a few scenarios, and (in case there is any doubt) even if you reduce costs pro rata to lost income it won’t stack up. Your majors earn profit, and nothing else does.
- Review – there are at least three routine reports you’ll need. The obvious one (progress on the Action Plan) but I’m sure PINS would welcome some feedback on how they’re approaching this new task. Don’t forget also to maintain perspective on the types of development coming forward. If it looks like designation is leading to perverse outcomes (strange patterns of opportunistic applications for unusual uses) then you’ll need to blow the whistle before it’s too late
All the detail may not be out in the open yet, but it’s going to be interesting times. Taken together, the implications of this new “naughty step” are pretty risky and scary for any one council. Where we have strengths is our ability to act together. So, even if you are smugly miles away from designation I’d strongly encourage you to help your fellow council out.
There are, after all, some long term concerns from having PINS available take decisions that were previously taken locally. I’m sure they will do a very competent job in difficult circumstances. But we should all hang together to ensure that in a year’s time every council is successfully de-designated and everyone has improved performance enough to stay clear of the escalator.