Councils Getting Value from the Planning Quality Framework (PQF)
Since launching the PQF late last year over 100 councils have signed up. We’re sending out regular quarterly performance reports and councils are using them to identify improvement opportunities, review resources, evidence the effect of previous improvement/change decisions, and as a baseline for collaboration projects and regional working.
Reminder – what is the PQF?
‘We’ve traditionally focused on PS1&2 returns as the only way to assess performance – the PQF goes a long way to highlight what good really is” – Leigh Palmer, Eastbourne Borough Council.
The PQF helps a council understand how much investment via planning applications it manages, how it’s using resources, what its customers think and how it goes about delivering successful development. It also delivers all of the 8/13 week stats; just in a more useful way. It’s free to use and you can ‘test before you invest’. Here are some of the ways the PQF is helping councils understand their planning service in fresh and more useful ways.
The value of the planning
The PQF is helping the planning department articulate its value. Being quick and efficient is expected, but demonstrating what quick and efficient translates to in terms of attracting and sustaining investment moves the role of planning centre-stage. Here’s what this looks like in a council’s PQF performance report:
The PQF allocates an ‘investment value’ to each application the council is managing. The values are estimates and weighted to account for regional variation. We’re refining this with the help of councils and the private sector.
This is more than a useful reminder of ‘how important planning is’. This is a picture of planning unappreciated by many across the council – including those making decisions about investment and resources. A useful reminder of the impact that a properly resourced planning department can have on investment via development.
How much of our time are we giving away?
Waste is an emotive word. We talk about the ‘work council’s do for free’. Withdrawn and re-submitted applications are a fact of life, but do we really understand the time and resources used up? The PQF shows how much work is withdrawn, how much is done for a £0 fee, and then (here’s the kicker) how many days of a planner’s work this represents. For some councils this can add up to 2 or 3 FTE’s worth of time annually. Take a look at how the picture builds up:
How much work is withdrawn?
On the left is the %age of withdrawn applications. Percentages aren’t always helpful (e.g. ‘15%’ could mean 50 applications or 500), so the right hand side helps you understand the scale of the issue by showing the number of applications withdrawn per 1,000 applications decided.
How much work do we do for free?
The left side shows how much work is done for free (excluding tree and heritage applications). The right side shows the equivalent days of planner work delivered free of charge. 200 days = 1 FTE.
For the most part fees do not cover the cost of processing so a withdrawn application represents a cost to the point that it is withdrawn. Add the potential for a ‘free go’ and the picture worsens. Instead of accepting this as inevitable or ‘part of the game’, PQF councils, armed with this new information are asking: Why are applications getting withdrawn? What type? How many occur at the request of the council? What does our developer community really think?
Feedback: ALL customers, EVERY application
My favourite part of the PQF. Councils no longer have to rely on one-off/annual surveys that tell them little more than their customers are ‘quite satisfied with the service’. PQF councils email a survey to a variety of customers (agents, applicants, neighbours that commented), and now understand what a different customers think about how the same application was handled.
The surveys generate feedback that can be acted on by asking 4 specific questions about individual applications: Were we helpful? Did we use information well? Did we use time well? Did our decision make sense?
For us the PQF is the ‘off the shelf’ answer to getting a high quality customer feedback loop built directly into the business of delivering the planning service. – Delegate feedback from PQF launch event.
Here’s how developers and neighbours scored their council’s service:
Note particularly how positive the scores are from neighbours on approved developments, and the scores of developer’s on those cases refused.
What do this council’s customers think about the quality of information they get?
These two examples blow most customer survey results I’ve seen out of the water. This is richer and more useful, especially as this data can be split out to an application type or category of development.
Planning Practice: How do we negotiate and deliver the best outcomes?
The PQF will help identify what adds value and quality to developments and the outcomes they achieve. At the moment this is more about councils sharing good ideas than gathering and analysing data. One council has put together a programme of design training for councillors based on a ‘Building for Life’ toolkit created by a council elsewhere who were using it to judge the influence of their pre-application and planning service on good design.
“Our design training is giving councillors a vocabulary to talk about design” – Ray Crawford Hastings Borough Council.
They created a checklist of design considerations for new developments and linked elements to planning policy. This will not only help councillors learn how to assess the design aspects of applications, but also give them a vocabulary to talk about design at committee and/or when engaging the community. You can read more about it here.
PQF is risk-free – ‘test before you invest’
“Most importantly [The Quality Framework] shows in a short easy to understand report the current state of the service, provides comparison with others, and an early warning of changes which impact on customers”. Martin Vink, Development Control Manager, Ashford Borough Council.
The PQF shows many different aspects of performance, and sometimes, some things are not that pretty. Some councils would rather not know what they look like than risk being ‘exposed’ in some way. However, I am more than happy for councils to join the framework, receive a report in confidence and if they’re unhappy or feel that the report exposes them in some way to criticism, we won’t offer their data to anyone else to benchmark against.
The future = relaxation, collaboration, devolution
The PQF remains an integral part of the Planning Advisory Service’s support for councils. I believe that it will have a large role in any future relaxing of the rules for ‘well performing’ councils and if local fee setting materialises. We are also working with collaborating groups of councils – the PQF is useful as a baseline for improvement work and a basis for working on common approaches to delivering planning across geographical areas. This is coming to the fore as the devolution and core cities agendas gain momentum.
PQF – So what’s next?
Over the coming months we’ll be running ‘so what?’ events where we’ll be meeting up with PQF councils and helping them understand what their reports are telling them and working with colleagues on improvement and change ideas. We’ll also be asking where next they’d like us to take the framework.