Can we just start again?

It is clear that resources are back on the Planning agenda, and in the context of ferocious pressure across local government that has got to be a sensible thing. As a consequence we’ve been returning to some work from a few years ago; helping councils in various configurations think about their fees, costs and productivity.

In amongst all this I had a moment of sudden realisation the other day. Despite the fact that localised fee-setting could be extremely good business for PAS and we are uniquely well situated with our masses of historical data it’s the wrong thing to do*. Trying to allocate little bits of cost on the various bits of the planning process as presently configured is hopelessly compromised. Much better, in my view, is just to start thinking about the planning application process from scratch. 

Starting from scratch is the only way to avoid the blocks that have prevented this issue making progress previously . Different users of the planning system will no doubt have their particular beef but to me there appear to be four main blocks:

  1. The system is already propped up by councils by 30%. Transferring this cost to applicants will see their fees increase by 30% just to continue to resource the system as it is.
  2. Allowing a monopoly service to set its own fees will create a system that will just expand gently, getting more complex and more expensive because there is no pressure to do otherwise
  3. There is no link between cost and quality. You can imagine an excellent council might provide excellent services at a slight premium. But what is to stop a bad council charging the same ? The national indicators do not work to manage quality.
  4. The present fee system contains a cross-subsidy, so that major developers subsidise home owners. To correct this cross-subsidy requires private people to pay lots more, while the “big boys” pay less. Politically tricky. And made worse by the fact that the simplest possible application is still quite expensive, so in percentage terms the hit on householders is quite tough. [to say nothing of trees and heritage… ]

I have spent lots of time and energy working out how to overcome these barriers – our Planning Quality Framework was an attempt to fix block # 3, and our productivity review is an attempt to fix block #2. Actually it’s easiest (in the long run) to put the existing system to one side and start over.

There isn’t time left in my lunch-break to do any more than briefly sketch out my ideas, and I doubt there is anything particularly magical in my thinking. It’s probably not more than three principles:

  • We need more than one planning process. Home-owners, agents, SMEs, volume housebuilders even waste & minerals each need a process that helps them achieve their goals. Let’s give ourselves the freedom to allow the SME to pay on completion rather than out the outset because of cashflow, and the householder the permission to start even before the paperwork is complete.
  • We need a simpler process for the simplest cases, and I don’t think the prior approval process is it. Difficult to explain but rather than imposing a simpler system from the outside, we need to find a way to let councils triage it from the inside. Everything is at a risk, and we need confident councils taking appropriate risk on a case-by-case basis.  This is why planning is a profession.
  • Lets think holistically about the process. If the outcome is a new building then the planning process should be scoped around the beginning / middle / end of completing a building. Not “pre-app”, “app”, “conditions” each as a distinct application.

People who know more than me, and know more widely than me, would probably add a few more. Why not fold in building control ? Why not factor in proper feedback on completions so we can all see what happens or fails to happen after planning ? Can we do something about the poor value consultation process ?

Anyway. My own private view is that what I (alone) would like for Christmas is a new planning process – or the commitment to find out what a really good one looks like.



* Note that this is definitively not the view of my employer. I’m writing this in my lunchtime as a private individual.


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