Reflections on 2015 – what’s happening on the ground

Towards the end of 2015 I was asked to do a talk at a conference on ‘What’s happening on the ground? (our ‘ground’ being a local authority planning office.  I thought I’d reproduce my musings here, based on fluffy feelings and behaviours.

Acceptance…….by more and more officers and councillors that there is a housing need, and it is a big one; numbers are high, and they have to plan for it. Acceptance that plans won’t be sound, (and decision making on planning applications will be constrained) – if they don’t. There is acceptance that some difficult decisions need to be made – although not everywhere has moved this on to action yet. But it has been demonstrated recently by some councils working through the plan process to release GB for housing. Planning Resource reported last October that in 2014 11 English councils adopted plans de-designating 2,000 hectares of green belt, East Dorset and Christchurch, and Bath and North East Somerset amongst them.  Acceptance that housing growth can be good – I’ve been with a few local authorities lately where councillors are more pro-­‐growth than officers – leading to some frustrations amongst councillors that officers are being too ‘professionally precious” ‘ and not understanding corporate growth agenda.  And there is acceptance that the Duty to Co-­‐operate can’t be ignored or taken lightly. So new partnerships are emerging to manage strategic planning on an on-­‐going basis.
Bamboozlement (not sure that is a word)……. with all the changes and asks of planning.  Housing crisis? Planning is the problem and the solution. Ageing population? You got it. Private rented sector? Why not. Home ownership…here’s planning.  In some ways t’was ever this. Confused (exasperated?) by  seemingly conflicting asks eg starter homes at expense of housing need for affordable rented; CIL exemptions against need to provide infrastructure; a plan in p lace by early 2017 but need to get up to date housing policies in place (to plan for starter homes).  And whilst I’m talking about confusion, what does early 2017 mean, what does having a plan in place mean and most importantly, what would intervention look like?
Despair……about ability to do proper placemaking when so much seems to be driven by viability. But particularly over ability to provide affordable housing. Doesn’t mean that people disagree with the reforms but there is concern about the knock on impact on providing affordable housing. And provide infrastructure; everyone knows that the public are more amenable to new development if the right infrastructure to support it is provided. And in some places, despair about cuts and impact on ability to do the
job – but not everywhere.
Councils becoming builders again.  Looking again at property portfolios. Partnerships with developers.Using plan allocation powers – in an area of high demand and pressure, the council talking to landowners about infrastructure contributions and mitigating some of the development issues – creating a competitive tension between the landowners, and using that to work in the council’s – or community’s – favour. All of these initiatives need strong leadership from within councils and that can include being bold and taking some risks.

Some councils are being proactive in other ways, by managing risk and financial security. We’re getting quite a lot of requests for help with service improvements. Some borne out of looking over the cliff edge, but others not, just concerned about improvement and doing things better. Wolverhampton, Camden are two of the poster authorities for streamlining the way they work and focussing on the customer. Others are following -­‐ Halton, Cheshire West and Chester.
Southwark and Peterborough have both found ways of generating income that isn’t hiking up fees but by making the most of the skills of their staff.  Others share ‘expert’ services for eg Newcastle and Gateshead host a Tyneside wide conservation and araechological shared service. We’ve written about some of these.
Of course others are doing similar exercises driven by the need for cuts but that picture isn’t universal. There are places where planning is recognised as a core service to deliver the council’s corporate aspirations and haven’t been cut; might find it hard to fill posts but are recruiting and looking for skills focussing on delivery of schemes. One council chief exec said that spending money on getting a plan in place was money well spent. And if you work in one of these places, you can do good planning.  Another said that planning is so important to the council in terms of income generation and investment that they won’t be cut financially.
Finally, happiness…… this one was a struggle.  Is there any? There are glimmers. The West Berkshire and Reading high court challenge – and notwithstanding that the appeal against the ruling – which knocked out the affordable housing threshold of 10 and the vacant buildings credit – did make planners smile and restore some faith in the system.
And there is a new wave of younger planners – as the old guard, or even the not so old guard, has left. There is an appetite to crack on and get stuck in. Many many still practicing local authority planners appreciate that planning is a good profession and despite some of the challenges and difficulties, they still like their jobs. And long may that continue.

Happy, belated, 2016 to you all.


Staying afloat as cuts bite

I spent a few hours the other day with the senior management team of a planning and regeneration service. The session was to think about how they would deal with significant budget reductions up to 2020.

As the LGA reported in the Future Funding Outlook 2014 (see also Under Pressure – how councils are dealing with cuts), “ With social care and waste spending absorbing a rising proportion of the resources available to councils, funding for other council services drops by 43% in cash terms by the end of the decade…’. This can’t be done by snips here and there – the well of efficiency savings has almost run dry. It will need a fundamental rethink about the service delivery.

Myself and a planning peer facilitated the discussions. Everyone in the room knew that they alone can’t find the answers and that many further conversations will be needed ‘upwards’ with the council about ways of working, appetite for risk, local priorities and the politics of making difficult decisions. And ‘downwards’ with team members (most good ideas come from within).

Firstly, I was pleased to see that this was up for discussion. It’s not an easy thing to start but they understood that a head in the sand approach wasn’t sensible. The Director knew that the ‘low hanging fruit’ had already been picked; nothing particularly easy or obvious was left. the team was keen to start thinking about the long term approach to the budget pressures they anticipated over the next few years. They were ‘ owning the problem’.

We started by looking at the current core services and challenging whether they were really necessary. What is it that you do that delivers the councils priorities? What would happen if you stopped? I mean really, what would happen if you stopped. OK, if you can’t stop, can you do it differently?

Inevitably the conversation went beyond the costs of the activity, and savings if not done (or done differently) into customer expectations and political risks. Stop doing site visits on all but majors (use google earth)? Local Development Orders for 3-walled extensions (we approve most anyway)? Enforcement only for high priority breaches? Stop plan-making and rely on the NPPF?

Eyebrows were raised at these initially unacceptable thoughts. But that was the point. Accepting that implementing any of these might also bring risk – at some point something would go wrong, Is it time for a shift in the balance of risk and what is the political appetite for this? How long can we afford to mitigate against risks to the degree we do now? Of course the politicians are crucial in this – everyone talks about how difficult decisions will need to be made. Public expectation will be managed (which is difficult in a time of economic recovery elsewhere).

Then we did crystal ball gazing. Imagine it is 2020. What does the service look like? This was interesting, and of course there are many unknowns, not least national and local elections, and probably more changes to the planning system (will there still be one) and local government finance.

These were some thoughts.

  • A commissioning council with proper accountability for running business units, including (popular, this one) breaking the relationship between a service and the non-negotiable central recharges. You pay how much for legal advise and there isn’t even a planning specialist? Directors should be proper, accountable, business managers free to choose to buy the print and design service, IT, legal advice, from the best/cheapest supplier.
    Self certification of planning decisions where they accord with the plan?
  • One consent (Penfold anyone?) for planning and building control?
  • The principle of ‘customer pays’ embedded even more – so deregulated planning fees are a must.
  • Developers/landowners financing action area or masterplans?
  •  Enforcement investigations for non priority breaches – well then the complainant pays
  •  Combine development management and building control into a ‘pre shovel ready’ and ‘post’ teams?
  • Devolved decision making to neighbourhood forums or parish councils (which already happens in Arun)
  • Upwards decision making to a combined strategic authority?
  • And the nirvana of a paperless office – all communications by email or the cloud

And more ideas. Some would need changes to legislation, some corporate decisions, and some are within the gift of the Director and team to deliver. Some areas we didn’t have time to go into – ironically the main one being around costs! But it is a start.

Hats off to those involved. These are difficult conversations with implications for people’s jobs. Not just their employment, but work that they like, value, believe in and want to continue with.

We didn’t get anywhere near to a service costing 43% less. But some things were said ‘out loud’ , ideas are buzzing.

I’m interested in what other councils are doing on this – are you having similar conversations? If not, what is your strategy for the years ahead? PAS would like to develop some work on this If you’d like to work with us on this, please let me know

Planning Reform from the councillor coal face

I’ve been out and about a lot lately, at different Councils and PAS events, talking to officers and councillors about planning reform. There’s a mixed response, ranging from ‘car crash’ to ‘about time’.  I haven’t noticed any patterns based along political party lines.  But here’s a summary of the views from the coalface of local government – and most importantly, from the people needed to make the Government’s reforms work. Continue reading

The NPPF and a way out of the mist

Do you watch the TV show QI, now in its umpty-something series? They’ve recently introduced a new feature, called ‘Nobody knows’ where the panel wave a sign if they think Stephen Fry has asked a question to which there is no known answer. I’d wave this if I was asked ‘what does the presumption in favour of sustainable development mean?’

A lot has already been written and said about it. From my perspective Continue reading

Wake up to planning

Is now the time that planning will flicker across the radar of Leaders and Chief Executives? We know that some senior executives and politicians are very involved in planning and take it seriously as a tool for managing development and change within their areas. For others, though, it is boring, regulatory, obstructive, and causes problems.

Planning is changing and it can’t have passed Leaders and Chief Execs by. The publication of the draft NPPF has triggered lots of press coverage in the mainstream newspapers.  Latterly this has reflected the ‘National Trust’ row and commentators views that it is the end of open space as we know it, because amongst other things, the presumption in favour of sustainable development.  Capitalise on any awakening interest and talk to them about both the changes and how planning is working now and in the future.

We’ve been thinking about some of the key (printable) questions in response to the draft NPPF. Continue reading

PAS – past, present and future

As PAS enters its 7th year, I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve achieved, what we’ve learnt and what we need to do next.  It’s certainly been fun for me – but has this model – a nationally funded, local government improvement organisation for planning – worked for our funders and for you?

The fact that we’ve got further funding in this climate is a fairly explicit sign that Continue reading

Thinking big

After over 20 years working as a planner in local government, I finally decided to join the RTPI. Perhaps it was the steely glance of one of the senior RTPI managers that did it, perhaps it was that after all this time I just felt I should. Or perhaps it was that I finally had an employer who would pay. Anyway. I did.  And once I join something, I can’t help but poke my nose in and become a bit active.

Continue reading