Talking to planning agents

I’ve been on the outskirts of some work that Hastings are doing with their agent community over the last year or two. Briefly, they’ve begun to track and publish the performance of the agents as it relates to some specific indicators. Immediately the agents can compare themselves to each other, and perhaps in the longer term people can begin to choose those agents who seem to be able to deliver a “yes” more quickly than their peers.

This seems to me to be a really good idea, and far more relevant than some other approaches. It’s because it’s based on a win-win. Good agents get more work and submit higher quality applications that are cheaper and quicker to determine for councils so people can get on with their developments. No one loses, apart from some of the chancers and the unskilled who have entered the market thinking that being an agent involves not much more than a thick-skinned ability to deal with bureaucracy.

To really take off though this scheme needs to become something embraced by the agents themselves. Not a punishment for the bad agents but a star of approval for the good. So I went down to Hastings a fortnight ago to take part in an agent’s forum, and I did so knowing that I could say some things that the good planners of Hastings would find tricky. I don’t need to worry so much about the working relationship and I made it clear I was talking from an entirely different perspective.

It’s fair to say it could have gone better. These are my reflections and some pretty hard-won learning.

My pitch to the agents

I’d given it some thought beforehand, and my message was in three parts.

  1. As opposed to a process of ‘accreditation’ or promising to do everything online this was based on publically available facts. No judgement required. And the facts were those that everyone could accept were important to applicants. Did the agent get a “yes” so that work could start.
  2. These facts were too esoteric to be of much use to the public, and that’s where we needed to get them in order to nudge people towards the good agents and away from the bad ones. We needed to convert a league table place to a “top 10” agent award so that agents can advertise “Top agent in Hastings 2013, 2014 and 2015”. But it would always be clear how places were awarded.
  3. Hastings by itself couldn’t promote the scheme effectively. It would only really take off it the agents themselves used it as part of their promotion.

agents

So I shared an up-to-date dataset that I’d put together. It didn’t do much more than combine and line up the various bits of data already published by Hastings, but where they were quite careful to avoid it looking like a league table I did the opposite. Good agents were green, and bad agents were red. But we were using outside in” measures- they got as close as we could to the “how soon can I tell my builder to start” experienced by real people rather than our silly national indicator set rules. And as the hand-outs went round I stood by to get questions from the room without knowing who had just been told by me that they were ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

A seaside skirmish

I knew there were some weaknesses with my approach, and I offered many of them up in my introduction. The room didn’t hold back with their own opinions. Without any varnish here are as many of the criticisms as I can remember:

  • The numbers are really small. With quite a small dataset one refusal would make a significant difference
  • it wasn’t a fair comparison. Agent 5 (the “winning” agent) did nothing but replace windows in conservation areas. It’s not sensible to compare that to architects with green field schemes
  • it ignored many of the other aspects of making a purchasing decision. For example, what if agent 2 didn’t have insurance ? and surely price is one of the biggest factors ?
  • Those agents that had fewer than 5 applications were excluded (to improve the validity of the numbers) and were therefore invisible. They didn’t like that, and the same would go for new agents trying to start up
  • This sort of “relative” measure of performance means that some agents would always be “bad” – even if every single agent improved markedly. Followed through this would mean that eventually there would
  • and there was the predictable set of grumbles that reminded me of councils 5 years ago. It was unfair that delays on the part of their clients would impact their figures; it was all the councils fault; it ignored the variable quality of the officers dealing with the schemes; sometimes clients wanted silly things and it wasn’t the job of the agent to disavow them; it was unfair for a monopoly to create a one-way league table; the council didn’t enforce its standards consistently etc. etc.

I think the final nail in the coffin of that particular session was my realisation that I’d been concerned about the scheme taking off at all as a way of influencing the choice of users. The SMEs in the room were worried about it working too well – and driving all the work to the top 1 or 2 firms. It was compared to being on the top of a google search page, but without the ability to pay more for your adwords.

On reflection

There are several lessons I’ll take away from the process. Some of which, in hindsight are pretty obvious. For example, if you’re trying to promote a “top 10” award it doesn’t help to have a league table on the screen behind you. And while you might think you can empathise with other perspectives, you really cannot overestimate how strongly people feel about changes to their livelihoods.

I think the biggest change in my thinking has been an acknowledgement of what good agents bring to the whole process. Agent 6, with whom I had a chat afterwards while we enjoyed the lavish buffet provided by Hastings, is a developer doing new builds and conversions. They average under 52 days from submission to decision (this figure allows for any and all messing about at validation stage). They can do this because they understand how planning works in general and how it works at Hastings in particular. They *are* a good agent for their client, and moreover this saves the tax payers of Hastings money.

For many years now I’ve helped councils understand their costs, their options and how they can make each pound go further. Charging for pre-application is routinely one of the recommendations .

As councils continue to trim their budgets they’re going to have to stop subsidising householder and simple commercial pre-application advice services. Unless there are policy or political implications then my sense is that an agent community can better serve the needs of people needing to navigate planning for the first time than council officers. Let’s reduce the size of the monopoly that is council planning rather than increase it.

So, the reward for good agents is not just a bigger share of the existing work but more work overall. And that is why a “make it go away” reaction is short-term and overly risk averse.

A way forward

Many years ago in an entirely different career I was talking to someone about a fancy fuel system that was then state of the art. It allowed you to monitor the mpg achieved by each driver, the subtext being that it would stop people nicking the fuel at the weekend.

What happened when you sat down with a driver and showed him that this economy was worse than his peers he would find several explanations. It would be his round was more hilly, or his truck hadn’t been adjusted properly. But then, the next time you checked, the economy had fallen into line. It may be that the agents (who were all careful to take the data tables away with them) now have a different perspective on their work and will take steps to become ‘better’.

What is clear is that when considered from the perspective of small independent agents the serious and immediate risks to people’s livelihoods are too great for a scheme like this to be worth the possible future benefits. I was unable to persuade even the agent with outstanding performance to get behind it, despite the fact that it would be a fantastic advert for his ability to get a “yes” for his client quickly.

But maybe a “big bang” approach is unrealistic. My guess is that Hastings will keep plugging away at this, for all the reasons outlined above. And if, over time, the agent community can see that it reflects reality then over time some of them might begin to use it to their advantage. But a hands across the water moment is not going to happen anytime soon. Which is a shame, as councils need a high quality and responsive agent community more now than at any time in the past.

Anyway it doesn’t really matter what I think, or how cross the Hastings agents may be with me. This change is part of our cultural shift, and you can see similar things happening in the health service. In several years, it will be unthinkable to employ a professional *anything* without being able to call up the facts of their performance to inform your decision. The agents of Hastings, and everywhere else, cannot be immune from the pressure to improve their service any more than any council can.

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3 thoughts on “Talking to planning agents

  1. I concur totally with the approach here. In analysis we’ve done for clients, there are enormous differences between the quality of agents and it goes all the way from validity rates to approval rates, even for applications of similar types.

    The hard reality is that some agents are better than others. The poor ones cost clients money, the authorities money and ultimately reduce the amount of development in the area. I suspect they also tend to degenerate the authority more than their fair share leading to reputational damage.

    The only possible objection to a league table is the small numbers of applications issue. I suspect this is largely overcome if the authorities in an area work together and combine their data sets (there are some nice, simple software solutions that can automate the grudge of this).

    It will still be highly controversial however (very interesting that even the ‘winners’ found it hard to support the idea). Authorities need to find ways to engage with agents as a crucial part of an ‘integrated supply chain’ that covers the whole gamut of advice, applicant support, quality management and the filtering out of ‘no hope’ applications. This will improve outcomes for everyone in the system but to work, authorities may need the courage to deploy some carrots, as well as occasional sticks from time to time. Is this the same sort of courage to say ‘no’ to an agency as it is to say ‘no’ to an applicant? I don’t know the answer to that!

  2. I think the thing that we circled in on was the risk of winner takes all.

    The argument goes something like this:

    – we all agree that the punter doesn’t want too much information or bother, so a simple gong system works best (eg “This is a top 10 agent in Hastings”)
    – but the council needs to have a genuine and evidence-based way of choosing a top 10 list (so that it can justify its selection to the company placed at 11)
    – so, the risk is that the top 10 list gains currency. And who wants to be placed number 10 on a top 10 list ?
    – and punters consistently pick from the top 3 which drives the work to the companies with an initially good placing

    The reality in Hastings is that most of the agents are one-man-bands who conduct the bulk of their work with only that council. And the prospect of a wave of buy-outs and takeovers feels unnatural to them.

    But I guess the same argument must be made about surgeons. And in their case you don’t maintain a “top 10” list you maintain a “watch list” of people who fail to hit minimum standards. And that sounds like an even more difficult system to introduce.

  3. I take away from this that when the best and most genuine attempts to make something better *fail*,they often succeed in one very important way – they challenge us to think differently and usually about those things on which we thought the last word had been spoken. In many ways, it is the failure that provides the learning that allows us to take advantage of such changes in thinking once they gain momentum.

    This is why RichardPritchard’s closing points are exactly why Hastings MUST keep plugging away with this. Rather than using the idea to force a change in behaviour today, look at how it can be used as a long-game – I see it as an investment in encouraging high quality and responsive agent relationships into the future. Here’s what I’d do.

    In response to the agent’s legitimate concerns, I’d keep it out of the public eye (for now), but continue to improve it and publish it among the agent community. The agent’s now know about this thing. I reckon a regular communication containing this info will be a must-read for any of them interested in keeping their business alive into the future (and who won’t want to know how the competition are doing?). I think that eventually, when this doesn’t ‘go away’, many will see that they need to act and engage with Hastings on how things can improve for them. Hastings keep the pressure on in a very subtle way – they know which way the wind is blowing, they’re staying on the ball, and they’re committed to working with the agents to make things better. It will be obvious to all which agents don’t care, and who knows when this will become a problem for them in the future?

    You can dismiss ideas that are stupid, but good ideas with flaws and mistakes and for whatever reason make you uncomfortable, will stick in your mind even if you ultimately reject them. I see it as part of our job to continue to take risks and fail better. Here’s to more nails in the coffin of these kinds of *failed* endeavours…

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