For years we have had our sleeves rolled up, poking about in the innards of planning authorities to see what sort of things they do. We’ve learned that planning is an extremely varied business, although it is also the case that 80% of the work is predictable, pretty straightforward stuff. There is also just loads of weird and wonderful work appearing in strange nooks and crevices – some of which don’t even fall under the Planning Act. It’s just a basic thing we need to do – to help councils name and number the work, so they can understand how to organise for it.
Anyway, several times over the years we have tried to do the same work for counties. I can’t explain entirely but it’s never felt like we did a particularly good job of it. In part we’re battling with some pretty fundamental things – in Districts there are big piles of similar things. In counties there are small numbers of very disparate things. In Districts there are fairly simple one-off transactions. In counties projects (schools, landfills, quarries) live on for decades and as they develop the consent needs to routinely be amended.
We went to see a small bunch of counties recently, and over a day went through their applications and their resources. What I’ll share here is an aggregated position*, but I learned alot about county matter applications. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting too. Note though that we didn’t touch on policy – too difficult for session 1 !
Monitoring and enforcement
Counties do quite a bit of monitoring. Sometimes it is a contractual arrangement (eg to check that an old landfill isn’t doing something nasty) at other times it is in response to a complaint.
They also need to do quite a bit of enforcement (and in my group without much success generating compensation yet). Poking about this looks to be mostly waste and recycling activities, with a little bit of vehicle movements / site licensing issues.
There is a very close correlation between income and costs for the contractual stuff. Overall the cost to the council is about £90k per year (about two people), of which £23k is recovered from site owners. Anecdotally this service is being reduced quite quickly.
Pre-application as an activity in counties is very marginal. We thought it was under-recorded. The anecdote is that most service users are very anti- paying a charge, which is in contrast to the extremely valuable assets represented by many minerals and waste sites.
There were no (or very few) planning performance agreements.
Planning applications (resources)
We asked the counties to group their costs around some standard headings based on headcount, along with some estimates of routine spend on legal and consultancy.
It was marked how large the gap is between costs and income – far greater in counties than districts. Without some movement on fees for counties it is difficult to see how this can continue. Despite the opposition of many users to paying more for services, without an injection of cash from users services will stall as collateral damage from the Counties’ financial settlement.
Planning applications (caseload)
The most common type of planning application is known as a Section 73 application, for development on land owned by the council. These are usually for schools – both new ones and for alterations to existing ones.
We split them between major and minor cases (based on fee as a proxy). The average county receives about 107 cases per year – we didn’t bother turning this into a caseload per officer as the cases are so dissimilar it doesn’t mean very much.
* Counties are dissimilar to each other, so I’m not sure it is helpful to think of this as the “typical county”. I’m open to alternative ideas.