Don’t panic! You are never alone

Picture taken in ‘Young Ones’ student house in 1986 – but which one is Pilgrim Pete?

One of the joys of working in the PAS team is that I can spend my days talking to like minded Planners across the country, find out what they are up to and tell them about what others are doing well. Many Planners feel quite isolated at the moment and are reassured to know that they have the same pressures, worries and questions as others. I also come across some brilliant best practice so can get Planners to learn from each other and avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ To save you all time here are my top 10 issues that Development Management teams are struggling with at the moment and the top 10 best ideas I have heard over the last year.

Top 10 issues (in no particular order)

  1. The number of householder applications have (excuse the pun) gone through the roof and you are all struggling with the shear volume. Reasons seem to be due to the Covid effect of more home working and cost of moving.
  2. Planners are in very short supply particularly experienced Planners who can manage those tricky Majors. The best case officers are being poached by the applicants!
  3. Extension of times are covering up a whole multitude of sins and Heads of Planning are grappling with the need to be honest about performance versus ‘playing the game’ to avoid the threat of designation
  4. Some Councils are getting themselves in a real pickle over validation and have a philosophical dilemma whether to treat it as a administrative process or a key part of providing a customer focused service
  5. Desperate shortages of staff lead to desperate times and pre application normally is the area that suffers most. However when Councils stop pre applications they end up losing a vital discretionary income source and have poorer application submissions
  6. Another consequence of staff shortages is for the remaining staff to stop answering emails and phone calls due to pressures of work. However this normally just ends up with more complaints and grief from councillors, agents and the public
  7. There appears to be a higher expectation of Planners from the public in terms of both enforcement and determining planning applications. The world of work has changed and more people work from home so are more conscious of their local area. This means they have more time to nag the Planning Department.
  8. Social media is targeting Planning Officers and councillors more and more in a negative way. People can view Planning Committees via a webcast and can more easily pick over every word uttered by decision makers and their officers.
  9. The fear of challenge is leading officers to write ever more complex and long winded reports just at the time when time is at a premium. You need to be careful if you expect an appeal, legal challenge or complaint but most officer reports end up in the (virtual) back of the filing cabinet neglected and unread. Why are you spending so much time on the unread reports?
  10. Some Councils get tied up in knots with their ‘Heath Robinson’ approach to IT. This sometimes results in very few people actually understanding how the IT system works and to a ‘single point of failure’ scenario. Successful Councils keep things simple and logical with a good backup of officers who understand how things work.

Now here are the Top 10 ideas (again in no particular order). I have purposely focused on the day-to-day ideas that help you run an excellent Development Management service. Others will tell you about the importance of aligning Development Management with the strategic direction of the Council, future proofing your service to respond to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, addressing national policy etc. These are, maybe, the tips that you will not always be told about by others.

  1. Pair the Chair of Planning Committee up with an LGA Member Peer as a mentor. It doesn’t matter how experienced the Chair is, the best way to learn is through peer-to-peer support
  2. Have a learning through experience process where you learn from every complaint, compliment, appeal decision etc whether it is positive or negative. This is a great way to learn, show that you are learning and motivate your staff by recognising when your staff do well
  3. Make a pact with the Section 151 officer on raising pre application income whereby you will go over and above to drive up income only if the income can stay in Planning. This a great motivational incentive for staff to drive up income and can provide the justification for recruiting more staff.
  4. Change your job descriptions and staff structures so that staff can move around the department and gain promotion without having to apply for a new job. You must keep the best staff wherever they currently sit in the organisation otherwise someone else will poach them.
  5. Become best friends with your nearest RTPI accredited Planning school. Then you can find out who are the best students and entice them to work for your Planning department
  6. Introduce a ’10 minute’ officer report for the simple stuff. If a householder application has no objections and is recommended for approval it will only be the case officer and signing off officer who ever reads it so why spend more than 10 mins writing it?
  7. Set regular meetings with senior managers to agree your position on certain key developments and ensure you are proactively delivering the things that matter to your Council. One Council calls them ‘Cobra’ meetings – you know who you are!
  8. Invest in your website to maximise self help. Put your heads together as Planners and think about all the general questions you get asked on a day-to-day basis and then put them down in a Q and A section of your Planning pages. This means you don’t have to spend time answering phone calls and emails with the same old answers.
  9. Get people who know very little about Planning – your partner, your children, your next door neighbour – and test the wording of Planning Committee reports and information on your website. If they don’t understand it then you need to change the wording. Remember Planning is public facing and so the public need to understand what you are saying.
  10. Send out a pack of information with the Planning Committee agenda for Members alongside the officer report that includes plans, Google Map reference and photographs. Then at Planning Committee the officer presentations can be limited to no more than 5 minutes highlighting any key points that need to be highlighted to the Committee.

So there you go. If you already follow all the top tips well done and let PAS know if you have others that we can share. If there is something new, try it out and let us know how it went.

Most importantly keep the faith and remember – you are never alone.

3 thoughts on “Don’t panic! You are never alone

  1. Well done Pete, I think the simplified reports can really help. I still come across reports from the 1990s and even the 2000s where they are hand written, no impact on amenity and standard conditions. Whilst a bit more than that is important for quality assurance a 10 pager can rarely be justified.
    Likewise a brief planning committee helps all. Short presentations and a focus on material planning considerations can hopefully avoid the 9pm finish.

  2. Some great points here but no mention of the pressures faced by the administration or technical staff who usually are the first point of contact whilst the officers are busy with all of these applications dealt with by these teams in the first and right through the application process. You are only as good as the team below supporting you and you know more than others as you have been in this position. Its a huge team effort.

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