What does good planning look like ? Six things you have to get right

Last week I missed a speaking engagement with the RTPI SW region. Never done it before – a diary cockup put me at the wrong side of the country blissfully unaware of a room full of people expecting me to talk about “improving your planning service”. This post is what I would have liked to say. Along with the coda “sorry”, obviously.

We In PAS have been banging on about performance and improvement for almost a decade. And quite a lot of the more recent discussion has been at quite a fine level of detail. After all, collectively we have assembled a very detailed dataset on the activities of planning departments so why not use it ?

However, the risk of talking about ‘validation’ and ‘end-to-end times’ is that you don’t ask big enough questions. In fact, if you are not careful you end up near Peter Drucker quote of ““There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all”. Sometimes without noticing it you can set out to solve the wrong problem, or – even worse – not notice that you’re solving a problem of your own making.

We all know that there isn’t one answer to this, and that the search for improvement is not something that is ever just finished. To help us we need a framework.


Students of management theory will recognise Maslow’s hierarchy of need. It is usually represented as a pyramid with different categories of need arranged in ascending rows. It is a useful framework because it helps to explain and link business drivers (like incentivisation, and motivation) with human drivers. It does so in a way that suggests an ordering – you must first allow your employees to meet their physiological needs (like rest and nourishment) and their need for a safe environment (known as hygiene factors) before you try to engage them more holistically with your endeavour.

When I think about organisational improvement I think we can usefully recycle this framework.

planningIn my reinterpretation there are again some basics without which good performance cannot happen, or cannot happen sustainably and predictably. Here is a quick run-through of six key aspects of a good planning service, along with my take on where we are as a sector and as a PAS supporting you:

Resources: It used to drive me nuts that ‘resources’ is one of the most often quoted bleats in the public sector. But it’s true – if you don’t have enough resources (usually human) then the job cannot be achieved in a sustainable way. But how much is enough ? This presentation by Toby (on loan to us from Lovely Lambeth) given at our spring conference suggests that 144 cases per office is an average. And it also gives some idea of the balance between DM, policy and monitoring. But it depends on the job you need to do: if you have contaminated land or a highly contested space you will need to scale accordingly. Note that our new PQF will give you a locally customised picture of your resource requirement, along with a trend allowing you to see how demand is changing.

Support: We don’t often say this, but I think it is essential that a planning service has a trusted and fairly direct relationship with the executive and political leadership of a council. Planning is a tough gig – most decisions have two sides to them and there are going to be bumps along the way. You need to have constancy of purpose and resist panic reactions (unlike poor old anonymous council).

Efficiency: Operational efficiency is difficult in the public sector, and within a monopoly of the public sector even more so. The best councils are never satisfied with the status quo and rethink and reinvent. Lots of our focus in the planning benchmark is here – and many councils have made massive improvements in this area.

Effectiveness: This is where the field starts to thin out. Some people are thinking beyond “doing things right” and getting to “doing the right things”. In my opinion the way to get there is to stop trying to control the whole operation via a DM procedure manual and to empower / trust and listen to your planners. Our work with Wolverhampton and a few others has been a really rewarding new thing this year. It’s obvious but bears making plain: to really achieve in this area you need to get outside the planning department and engage with agents and other customers.

Policy: There is, somewhere, a planning authority which has something approaching a unified approach to DM and policy. This is where I want to go next – where we can think about policy approaches and monitor them in the context of DM activity. Some places already monitor a development pipeline of major sites, but I think I’m talking about a layer closer to reality. Where outcomes beyond “built” or “not built” can be captured, so that when people are wondering what can be done to “fix planning” so that “houses can be built” there is a good, regional evidence base of what development is up to.

We have nothing to share, yet, although we may be about to do some pilot work in this area.

Purpose: What is the highest order thinking about planning ? I’ve called it “purpose” but it goes by many other names. “Place shaping” was in vogue a while ago – whatever it’s called it is outside the planning department and probably more politically driven than anything else. What sort of place are you trying to encourage ? What kind of things can planning do to help ?

We have in the past run workshops for senior councillors on this theme, but it is definitely not easy for us (or indeed anyone else) to do. This sort of thing is instrinsically difficult – although I recommend Marcus Walker’s presentation on a massive development in North Lincs as being one of the most inspiring pieces of place shaping I’ve seen. To be both bold and pragmatic and be able to deliver big change over multiple election cycles – this is local leadership at its best.

Interested ?

In my usual way I’ve probably sounded as if all this is just really difficult. Actually, we have got many tried and tested pieces of support that can help across almost every layer of the planning pyramid. If you want a conversation about how we might put together a menu of support just for you contact us at PAS@local.gov.uk

And, for those of you that have been with us along the way, out of the archive here are our original (2006) and revised (2009) statements of “what makes a good planning service”. You’ll notice that lots of the scenery and legislation has changed, but not much of substance.

For the RTPI in Taunton no doubt I would have been able to go into this in a bit more detail, as writing things down is more difficult. But this is the core of what I wanted to say – that thinking about improvement delivers results only if you approach it with increasingly higher orders of abstraction. We in PAS have been lucky enough to work with many fantastic practitioners and places to develop the tools we use at the moment. Do they knit everything together perfectly ? No. Do we spend an appropriate amount of time on policy ? No. But bit-by-bit we evolve, learn and improve – up the side of the pyramid to collective self-actualisation. At least, when we don’t cockup our diaries.


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