Many people have got quite cross about the “alternative providers” bit of the Housing and Planning Bill. We’ve been doing some work getting some solid, sensible council people in the same room as DCLG and getting some of the issues out in the open. Having heard the idea kicked around from several angles I offer here a positive, step-by-step guide to making this thing work. Kind of like a thought experiment. A bit like when you ask a vegetarian “But if you had to eat a bit of an animal, would you eat a sausage or a lamp chop ?”.
But before we start, lets set the scene. I’ve heard some people talk about this proposal as if it is like the monopoly previously held by the Royal Mail being opened up to competition. This is not a helpful analogy, because the customer in that situation is the person receiving a parcel, and only them. I think a better analogy is the liberalisation of the places where people can get married. Previously only religious places and registry offices. Now, loads of different kinds of places have a registration to carry out marriages. The bride & groom are the customer, but the State is also a participant and maintains an interest in the service being done correctly (and under cover).
Who might alternative providers be ?
Alternative providers (APs) would have to be *nuts* to try and do everything a council does. Think of the preparation that would be required to be able to offer the sheer range of applications that a council must deal with. The cost of gearing up for the rare things just makes no sense. For this to work, we have to observe Pareto and allow for AP’s to organise for doing the common things well and cheaply.
This approach would also suit SMEs and their insurers. I might specialise in shop-fronts. I have a pretty good idea of how and where to advertise for customers, and because it’s all I do I *know* how the shop-front system works. You might specialise in all applications in the Kensal Rise conservation area. Again, you know the history and the bits of the place that really matter and where there is some room for a bit of wiggle. As well as some of the characters from KRRA. And so it goes on. Her thing is trees – his is extensions. And yes, many of the people delivering these services are going to be the people currently sitting in council planning departments.
Of course, allowing APs to stake out a specialism (and drive costs down) comes at a price. Most obviously APs will not want to offer a heritage service without heritage applications attracting a fair fee. But just as plainly Councils won’t want to be left with the horrid applications that cannot be made to work financially. Each application needs a fair fee (set by the council) and if people can undercut it then good luck to them. And if the undercutting is so large that lots of work starts to disappear then councils will need to revise their fees down or accept its permanent loss.
How will it work in practice ?
For people who aren’t up close with the application process there is a hope that somehow the “processing” and “decision” bits of the whole divide neatly into chunks which can seamlessly be navigated. I’m afraid not.
It gets a bit deep for a blog post, so I’ll just lay down the three problems that need to be part of the approach. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but each requires quite a big change to the status quo.
- Consultation: Councillors particularly want to know what is going on and will not want to check two (or three, or four) places to see which applications are on the weekly list. The risk of JR when there are multiple places things may (or may not) have been publicised goes up exponentially. Somehow all the cases being consulted by providers A, B and C need to be in the same place. The provider should be invisible to consultees – it requires a single website (in the cloud) to knit it together.
- Policy: Planning decisions are strongly driven by policy. Hitherto each planning policy team has had a captive audience in the DM colleagues, which is one reason why plans are such enormous and arcane things. But what if you worked in six boroughs ? How would you navigate and apply each council’s policy ? What’s stopping each borough setting out their approach in a common framework and spatially so it was immediately obvious how policies ‘bit’ on every site in the six boroughs? The idea is quite liberating and so far removed from current practice that it sounds quite bonkers.
- Quality: Managing for decision-making quality is at present a management process. As a standard part of staff supervision the quality of work is coached and managed upwards, and ultimately there is a trust relationship between report-writer and decision-maker. How would a decision-maker react if their team’s reports came to them totally cold ? And anonymised so she couldn’t tell who had created which report ? In that situation you would want to have some kind of spot-check and sanction regime to manage quality, as well (perhaps) for APs to signal when something might be borderline or to ask for help. Like staff do.
And yes, insurance is part of the answer. But it can’t be all of it.
Why should anyone bother ?
If these barriers can be overcome what might happen if this thing takes off ? The APs, of course, will want to make a small profit on the work and they might be able to package the service along with others (building control) to form a nice customer-friendly little unit.
But more broadly there are other possible good outcomes from this
- Councils can compete for talent. Allowing market forces cuts both ways, and fees can be set at a level that allows councils to pay market rates for good people.
- Service offers can be made more flexible. The national system is a straight-jacket. Innovators in councils would *love* to be able to change the system to make it a better fit to local needs. Most applicants are not cost sensitive, but quality sensitive. Fewer conditions ? Quicker turnarounds ?
- Focus. Why should councils care that much what householders are doing to their kitchens ? Place-making – that is the job that should exercise councils
It may be that Givernment does not fully understand the planning application process. They refer to APs ‘processing’ applications and the LPA still making the decision (delegated or committee dependent on the circumstance).
What this could boil down to is the applicant paying the AP to make what is usually a subjective assessment of their proposal, which I imagine in many cases the AP will recommend for approval to the LPA.
The LPA will then pick up this recommendation, and will then have to make their own assessment as they are the ones makes the decision. They may or may not agree with the recommendation. If they do not agree it is not clear what will happen. Will then then write their own recommendation? I can imagine this being complicated at a planning committee (!) E.g. The AP recommends approval (they are being paid to do so by the applicant), the council officers recommend refusal, and this all gets reported to committee? What a mess.
In these cases how will the fees charged be divided up? The LPA role appears to be quite substantial – surely they won’t be doing this work for free? If they are expected to work for free on AP recommendations, whilst they have their own applicants who are actually paying a fee to the LPA, surely they will have to prioritise the latter which will mean the decisions on AP applications will be likely to be substantially delayed.
That side of it could work well for the LPAs as going directly to them would be likely to result in a much quicker decision than going to an AP, who at the end f the day can only make a recommendation to the LPA and then wait for the LPA to have time to look at it. As above, if the LPA is not paid a fee for this work, how can they prioritise it over fee paying work?
LPAs are in a better position to make recommendations at present as they deal with all applications and can, if they wish to, work hard to make consistent decisions across their area. I.e. A consistent t application of local policies and guidance. Multiple APs dealing with a small number of applications cannot active this.
This whole idea feels like it will make things worse not better. The obvious solution is to raise application fees and have the application fee income ringfenced to fund Council’s planning teams. That could guarantee a decent resource level and timely decisions. At present I can’t see APs making things easier for anyone.
For the reasons you set out I don’t think the system is going to work in that way.
The decision made by the AP is not a recommendation, subject to review and amendment by the LPA. It is the decision, full stop. The decision-maker can accept it, or (I’m guessing) not. But it won’t go through its own parallel process of arriving at a decision – because what would be the point of that. [there is flakiness here – if an LPA refuses an application it will need reasons and these reasons can only be the product of review and judgement]
For this reason I can’t imagine that it makes sense for an AP to get involved with the complicated committee cases with chunky s106 and lots of conditions. Just the simple and straightforward ones.
When you look at some of the values of affordable housing arrangements in London you would have to be very very well insured to want to get involved.
Para 8.8 of current technical consultation ‘The final decision on individual planning applications would remain the responsibility of the LPA, based on a report and recommendations from their own officers or from an approved provider…’ Unless the Govt has a change of heart this raises all of the issues Jon outlines. I would expect LPAs to be be very nervous about approved provider recommendations without a quality check from their officers. Will LPAs be expected to deal with appeals? After all it remains their decision and APs aren’t going to work for nothing.
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Yes, final decision is the LPA’s.
As I understand it the appeal will be defended by the AP, unless the LPA didn’t decide in line with the AP’s decision. But in what circumstances an AP would present an LPA with a refusal is quite beyond me. And how (and who) pays for the appeal process I honestly don’t know.
And yes, I can see the nervousness from LPAs. Perhaps the LPA has a role in the approved provider process ? Perhaps it is an extension to the existing accredited agent scheme ? We also need to spell out nice and clearly what the rewards are for taking this risk.
The debate so far will raise lots of issues and it would be good to hear some views from potential APs about how they would ‘pitch’ their business offer to customers. The building control comparison doesn’t seem to me a very good one because the Approved Inspector model is much more reliant on an insurance-based risk that a building might fail in the long term and there is no third party involvement or external check of the AP’s approach at the time of construction etc..
But before that let’s imagine a scenario where a potential applicant came to her local planning authority and obtained pre-application advice to the effect that an application would not be recommended favourably. She approaches an AP who expresses the view that the scheme would receive his support. He receives the fee and submits a recommendation of approval to the local authority. The officer with delegated authority sees his own staff recommendation of refusal at pre-app stage flagged up on the application form and an AP’s recommendation for approval of the same scheme. So do the objectors. This will make for interesting times. Will the regulations stipulate that customers must ‘stick’ with their first adviser even if they don’t get a favourable recommendation or is the idea that they can ‘shop around’ until they find someone who will support them? If this is a good idea in principle, will the Inspectorate service be broadened into the wider marketplace too?
I am carrying out research on this very subject as it raises some very interesting issues and discussions. If anyone reading this blog would be happy to participate in a short discussion / interview about this over the phone I would be very grateful. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I am conducting some research on this very subject as it raises some very interesting and significant issues. If anyone reading this blog would be happy to participate in a short informal discussion or interview about this, please do get in touch as I would be very grateful. My email address is email@example.com