Simple principles for good planning

I recently ran a session at a Planning Resource seminar and was asked to pay particular attention to innovation, shared services and outsourcing as ways of managing resources better.

Done properly, innovation of this sort is certainly the future for planning, but it’s a medium term game at best. For my session I wanted to focus on the ‘bread and butter’ challenges managers face each morning when they sit at their desks like processing more applications with fewer staff, backlogs, the ‘up-to-date-ness’ of the local plan, and the relentless assault of legislation changes etc.

There are many opportunities for quick improvement and better use of resources that exist now, in our day-to-day work and are being missed simply because we are too busy doing what we do, instead of asking ourselves ‘why’ we do it? Most councils are addressing the resourcing challenge by using tools to stay out of trouble (e.g. extensions of time) and looking to pass more cost on to customers (e.g. pre-app, PPAs, paid-for appointments). Fewer, though, are thinking differently about why they do what they do.  

Friend of PAS and ex-Hastings planning manager, Raymond Crawford, while out-and-about helping councils get better, has been asking the ‘why?’ question and has come up with some ‘key principles’ for managing a DM service. PAS liked them so much we took the same idea and produced something similar for plan making; ‘key principles for managing the Local Plan’.

It’s all about perspective

For me, what Ray has hit upon are some fundamental truths about how councils ‘do planning’ that are often ignored. This leads to a loss of perspective, creates unnecessary complication and ultimately hampers improvement and progress. Examples include: treating all work as equal; checking/duplicating everything so as to avoid ‘that complaint we got once back in 1986’, or simply pinning our hopes on ‘the new IT system’ (again first promised back in 1986).

A shift in thinking

We all roll our eyes when we hear someone answer: ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it’, but it’s us managers that have created the systems and ways of working that trigger this response. The ‘key principles’ are NOT about how to do things – they are about taking a step back, asking ‘why?’, stating a few home truths and stimulating useful conversations.

Ray’s principles help challenge how we think – by his own admission they are nothing new, but there is something about seeing things we already know written down and presented by someone else that can create a shift in our thinking (sometimes it’s as simple as realising ‘phew, it’s not just me that thinks like this!‘). Here’s a quick overview of the principles and some of my own thoughts.

Development Management – start with variety, make risk your friend, and then stop doing things.

It is variety that makes planning wonderful. The variety in the work is the opportunity to consider different ways of working. Why do we have to follow the same rules and procedures for simple and complex cases? Why don’t we take more ‘managed risks’? Why do we hold work up with so many hand-offs and checks? Ray argues that allowing work to ‘flow’ is at least as important as having enough bums on seats, and worked out that for every minute you save, for every 1,000 applications, you gain 2 days per annum. Proof that small changes and improvements do matter.

Plan Making – start with purpose, prepare for risk and challenge, get political cover, and move as swiftly as possible

Plan making is a serious investment of time and money so it is sensible to routinely pause, reflect, listen and think. Have a clear purpose – plan making is a complex enough business, but without a clear purpose for what you are doing (again, begin with ‘why?’ not ‘how?’), the focus of the process easily turns into an endless chase to satisfy a list of regulations, rather than satisfying the aims of the plan. Plan-making is a political not a technical process; understand the different roles occupied by planners and councillors and get political ‘cover’. Risk and challenge are facts of life and risk increases in line with the time taken to make the plan. My colleague Adam Dodgshon put it nicely:

“be confident in your evidence, if it’s the right evidence to support your plan, it’s the right evidence to defend a challenge”.  Adam Dodsghon, PAS.

Can we keep getting better?

It is true that planning services have stripped themselves back to the bone and reviewed themselves to death in the last few years. But the resourcing picture is only going one way and that is why we have to keep challenging ourselves to think differently about our everyday ways of working. Yes there are rules and procedures, but how many are helpful and how many are historical? What are the practical ways that we can achieve more by thinking differently about the things we’ve done for years?

What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

The Government is thinking differently; the introduction of alternative providers is not just a shot across the boughs, but a clear signal of where planning is heading. Too often, planning is a ‘done to’ service, reacting and therefore usually on the back foot. We need to start thinking differently and yes, shared services and outsourcing may be the future, but not all of us are ready for that. What we should always be ready for are the opportunities to make sure our planning service is as slick as it can be and customers like it.

Keep an eye on the ‘big’ changes

By the way, I didn’t ignore the innovative stuff in my session. I asked someone that knows a lot about making shared services work to do that bit – Rachel Almond, Planning Service Manager of the West Suffolk Partnership (Forest Heath / St Edmundsbury). Anyone thinking of going down that route should speak to her.

Contact martin.hutchings@local.gov.uk if you have any comments or for more information.

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