Planning application statistics: death by a thousand slices

PAS (and chums) are doing some work on pre-application advice that should be out for Christmas. I’ve been chipping in with some thoughts on the pricing of services and how councils might evaluate whether their offer works.

To help keep things on track I’ve been trying to keep everyone conscious of the tight timetable and have been using (and probably mis-using) the phrase minimum viable product. So our pre-app suite will ship with an evaluation module that is good enough to get by. However, in building it and testing it with some of our lovely peers and pilot councils I’ve learnt not just that it isn’t perfect yet, but that the whole platform on which we try to evaluate planning is rubbish.

In a nutshell, the way we break the development process into discrete applications (like little slices) means that we have lots of data on how each slice was handled but not on the ultimate outcome or how the process worked as a whole. We are the equivalent of the football manager knowing how many corners each team had in the match, and even how long each one took to play, but not what the result was. Or at least, this is true for those applications that are not one-shot simple processes:

composite evaluation

For now I’m calling it ‘composite evaluation’ because to understand what really happened we need to join some of the slices together. And not unthinkingly. It is not enough to know what pre-application happened and then a full application was received. Did the application reflect the advice ? Or was the site sold inbetween ? Or is this a different business operating from the same UPRN ? All this requires judgement. And a healthy dose of reality as the development process is full of loops and restarts already and even without worrying about outlines and appeals you will routinely see a combination of:

development slices

Annoyingly this judgement and extra level of description comes at a cost. And while some of it can be offset by the work that is already done in various pockets of councils (as part of the AMR, as part of the development team, in regen somewhere) it doesn’t feel like the ICT systems can do this painlessly yet. But imagine the power of being able to tie together what is really happening when you see each slice as part of a greater whole.  I reckon there are advantages in three areas:

Putting development quality in a context

We’re struggling on with our work on quality – part of which requires that we understand the quality of proposals as they first appear and then get again as they get permission. But this a ‘slice’ mentality. Having poked about in downloads of back offices for too long recently (more, perhaps, in another post) the number of amendments and variations to schemes has grown extraordinarily in the last year or two. What matters is not the quality mark at the point of decision but whether (or not) the planning department was able to negotiate upward on schemes that got built that way. I suspect that many DM managers would get trembly lip if they knew how many schemes either didn’t proceed or had their negotiations varied away at some later date.

In a recent study for a single planning authority I looked at sites with more than 5 planning records. There were 321 full applications, with 66 variations to conditions and 97 other amendments. What was approved was (in a sizeable minority of cases) either not built or not built out as approved.

Saving money (and providing a good service)

So, in order to understand whether you are spending your negotiation resources wisely you have to know how well things are followed through. It’s bit like arguing with a year 8 child about the virtues of wearing a coat to school in winter. They might be wearing it as they walk out the door, but as soon as they are round the corner it’s gone. Best to understand which battles to fight and which to leave.

Moreover when you look at how many applications are part of the same thing you can ultimately save time by ensuring they go to the same planner. This reduces hand-offs and the number of people that have to get their head round a scheme. We also have clear feedback from applicants that they hate the arbitrary way case officers come and go with their many different opinions. I know it can be tricky for some senior planners who feel their new work is sometimes compromised by repeated minor niggles from previous schemes but they will be quicker and more consistent.

Understanding your work better

This corralling of the development process into a coherent whole would have a profound influence on how well planning authorities could defend themselves from the allegations that they use conditions as a license to print money (ha !) and that (as seems likely) pre-commencement conditions are so evil they should be legislated against. 

There are also several slightly geeky problems that this organising principle solves to do with the slightly arbitrary nomenclature and classifications (some of which are to do with the national indicator and are not talked about in public). It changes our understanding of the work from “a bunch of applications, some of which are complex and many of which are not” to “a load of developments, some of which are ready to implement and others which are not”. Don’t underestimate the change of mindset required to move from “how can I say ‘yes’ to this application ?” to “what needs to happen to get this built ?”.

And, for the first time, we can talk about how many schemes began life as contrary to policy but got built thanks to collaboration and constructive relationships.

Closing thought

Our pre-application ‘thing’ (we’re not very good at marketing) will ship with something much less dramatic in it. And it will work fine for a while. But this is really the way to do it and it is so basic, boring and obvious I’m baffled that it hasn’t been done years ago. It’s not natural territory for PAS but if I get a sense that some ring-mastery is required perhaps we will do our bit.

And yes, I know many good councils already do some of this some of the time. This is not instead of taking your planning committee to see how the schemes really turn out. It’s about making this part of “how we do things” in planning departments so we can understand, articulate and get better at managing developments.

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One thought on “Planning application statistics: death by a thousand slices

  1. Pingback: Re-thinking Continuous Improvement | Planning Advisory Service

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