The planning department of 2025

I’ve been doing some thinking about the future of late. Partly because we are doing some gentle limbering up as we think about what the next set of planning reforms means for PAS, but partly because lots of recent discussions tend to end up heading in the same direction. This post is not much more than thinking out loud to see if anyone else has got better ideas or thoughts to contribute.

Working culture

One of the recurring conversations at the PAS conference was capacity and the competition for talent. It is really easy to lose people for a few more £ per hour or a better work environment. Managers find this churn unhelpful, but I wonder if this competition could be healthy – it might present an opportunity to reset what I have often described as the “macho-bullshit-long-hours DM culture”. When I first stepped foot in a planning department almost 20 years ago I was shocked at how often people worked long hours and right up to the deadline of planning applications.

It felt a bit weird, with heroic and last minute interventions seemingly required most days. It became a bit clearer when, in a different planning department, I can remember suggesting that giving new starters a caseload of 50 open cases might not be the way of getting the best out of people. I was quickly knocked back with a curt “this is how we all learned and this lot will have to learn the same way”.

In compensation for this tough workload in the DM office, good teams had a mutual appreciation for the work being done and the difficult circumstances it was done in. They had each others backs, could see the effort and had someone to talk to for a second opinion. People struggling would be noticed, and people ready to take more on could overhear useful conversations and look keen when volunteers might be needed.

These days good managers know that expecting people to carry on the same working practices but from home, without the compensating camaraderie is going to count against them in the competition for talent. And they know that simply mandating a wholesale return to the office isn’t going to work either. This culture question is not easy, and it won’t fix itself.

And what about customers? and digital engagement?

In a discussion that was meant to be about something else recently I had a tangential conversation about customer’s experience of planning services. As I feared, their perception is that remote working is further driving a wedge between customers and planning officers. Telephone calls are being replaced by emails and what we once used to call the “development team approach” is being done via async notes and the occasional teams call.

It reminds me of the findings of the customer survey work we did all the way back in 2015 (long since vanished from the internet, so you’ll have to take it on trust). We asked a 1000 recent customers about their experience, and asked them to choose from a pre-populated list of attributes the ones that mattered the most. The results were pretty plain (this text is lifted from the report of the time):

“Looking at the highest ranked attributes gives us the following two main messages:

1. Users want planners to help them avoid the time and cost of resubmission:

  • The opportunity to amend a planning application is the most desired planning service attribute.
  • This is mostly about achieving a positive outcome without the need for the additional time and cost inherent through resubmission, but can also sometimes be due to changing customer requirements.
  • Resubmission is usually a costly process for the local authority too as a new application will require the most of the processing cost of a first application but often without the accompanying fee.

2. Users want planning services that are designed around person to person contact:

  • Customers want to be able to talk to a planning officer to get planning advice. Such a service is rated much more highly than online guidance. As one customer put it: ‘Ability to talk to a duty officer before submission can be vital on some schemes. It would save time and cost to the local authority, likewise time and cost to the client.’
  • Customers also highly rate access to their case officer. Many of those who gave a lower score also used the free text entry field to mention problems with communication: ‘case officer could not be contacted’, ‘officer reluctant to speak to me’, ‘total lack of communication’, ‘impossible to communicate’, ‘Case officer virtually impossible to get a hold of’.
  • Quick appointments for pre-application advice are considered less important but are not insignificant.”
PAS Benchmark summary – 2015

We also provided the opportunity for comments and suggestions. More from the report:

“Our survey also provided a section that allowed users to add any other comments about the service they received from the LPA. Some applicants went out of their way to praise helpful officers who had provided guidance and suggestions to deliver a positive result. However, almost all of this feedback from users can be boiled down to one issue: communication.

When taken in totality the feedback provides a moderately positive picture of planning services, however, there were some clear messages on where users would like to see improvement.

  • Improvement effort should focus on improving communication with service users and ‘customer care’ in general.
  • A target culture reduces user satisfaction and probably increases service cost to users and planning services too.
  • Channel shift and approaches borrowed from high-volume transactions, such as the use of call centres, do not work well with high value and comparatively rare interactions.”
PAS Benchmark summary 2015

So, what does all this mean for the planning department of 2025?

Well, I think some of this provides some uncomfortable but timely home truths to those of us tasked with preparing the way for a new, more digital planning system. Over the next few months I’m going to lead the conversations with clever people I am fortunate to have as a fairly routine part of my work towards some of these ideas:

A new working culture needs to be thoughtfully designed: making a “nice place to work” that can attract and keep hold of people is going to become almost a competitive advantage for planning services. It will need to find new ways to support people working in teams, to help them develop their skills and (at times) allow them to have fun. It won’t happen by accident – it will be deliberate and consultative.

Customers will want to work with humans: many planning applications are the first step of an investment that will come with risk. The survey data is very old now, but I’d be prepared to bet that at key points on the life cycle of a project through planning its promoters will want to be in a real room with the real team who are going to assess it. And (obvious point) the development team members won’t all be in the same room at the same time without a working culture that prioritises it.

Digital is necessary but not sufficient: I think most of the underpinning “bets” of the digital planning work are the right ones. Improving the way that planning uses evidence, and reducing the friction of routine data management are essential but by themselves they won’t be enough. Those of us quite long in the tooth now know how dangerous it is to hope that the new digital tools will somehow bring good working practices with them. They won’t.

Alongside working culture, workplaces have to play their part: One of own bugbears this. Prior to the pandemic we had “new ways of working” which was short-hand for “more people than desks”. I don’t know about you, but the “clear desk” policy means that workplaces feel quite boring and lots of the helpful cues (in the old days it would be the number of cases on the validation shelf) are absent. In designing my own workspace I am careful to keep my important work and priority tasks out in the open. Make the work visible again! make the team’s priorities impossible to ignore!

We run an occasional event we call the digital showcase. Unlike many others we try to avoid rushing through a series of “show & tell” type presentations and poke at emerging projects. If you want to be part of it come along – I am interested in hearing how we can turn the undoubted cleverness of people and projects into a more wholesale change for the sector.


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