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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.