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.


Bring the joy back into being a Planning Officer

I have read with great sadness the article by Catrional Riddel in Planning Resource about the rock bottom morale for Local Authority Planners and Sam Stafford’s 50 Shades of Planning blog that supports this with personal experiences. In my role at PAS I see the stress that Planners are being put under and it is very worrying for the health of our wonderful band of Planning professionals and the future of Planning. Who would want to come into the profession when you get overworked, underpaid and abused across social media?

Well I want to try and convince you all that Planning is actually a wonderful profession. However I am going to do it from a rather unusual angle by relating it to being a ultra marathon runner. Keep reading as this will make sense soon…

As a head of Development Management at a big urban unitary authority I took up ultra marathon running partly to cope with the stress of the work. The theory being that I would be too exhausted to worry about the next Planning Committee agenda. However I soon began to realise that the disciplines for both are not so different – let me explain using Development Management as an example but it can equally apply to other areas of the Planning profession.

Breaking down a seemingly impossible task – when you run very long distances the task seems impossible. How can a mere mortal run for 100km or 100 miles without stopping? Well you don’t think of it like that. You aim for the next rest station in 5 miles, have a bit to eat and drink then reset for the next 5 miles, then do the same again and again until you finish. As a Development Management officer / manager you have a ridiculously high workload so you need to be ultra organised. What do you need to do today? What can wait? What needs to be pushed along so that it doesn’t cause a panic in a week’s time. Focus on what you can achieve today before you reach your next rest station and don’t panic that the journey seems impossible. Remember to rest at the end of the day so that you are ready for the next stage of your Planning journey otherwise you won’t complete your ultra marathon.

Visual the end point – when I am running an ultra marathon I always visualise crossing the finishing line or having a cold beer with a medal round my neck. This helps me work through the here and now pain and allows me to remember why I am out in the cold and wet when others are cosying up to the TV. As a Planner visualising the end point is easy because an applicant sends you the pretty visual and you can genuinely change a place for the better. You may want to visualise a tricky house extension being built with the design improvements that you made happen. You may want to visualise a new housing development full of families creating lives for themselves because of your hard work to get the application to approval. Not many people can visualise success so easily.

Be proud of what you have achieved rather than thinking of the uncertainties of what is to come – I always think about the miles I have run, rather than the miles I have still to run because I know I will never have to run those miles again in that race. This is a massive motivator for me. If you have a planning application coming to Planning Committee you will have done a lot of hard work to get you there. Stop, pause, reflect and be proud of your achievements so far. Planning Committee is an uncertain place and a decision can go against an officer recommendation for all sorts of reasons. If you have done a professional job you will come over as confident and convincing. If Members have a different view then that is for them and you should never take it personally.

Pain is temporary – I can never run an ultra marathon without having low points. I have even been known to cry with pain and exhaustion. However as soon as I have finished a race I want to do another. People are often horrible to you particularly in Development Management. Applicants think you are on the objectors’ side, objectors think you are in the hands of developers. However it is not about you, it is about the Planning situation that sometimes brings out the worse in people. How many times have you come across an objector who tells you that if you approve an application their lives will be ruined? How many times does that really happen? People over-react because they can and in reality you have probably found a good middle ground because that is what makes you a great Planner.

Finally collect the bling – I love looking at medals that remind me of the races I have run. I don’t remember the bad parts, I just remember the joy of taking myself out of my comfort zone and achieving something I am proud of. As a Planner we create better places, improve the lives of our communities and generate jobs for present and future generations. Who else can say that about their jobs. Your bling is a place where people want to live, work and enjoy themselves.

Be proud to be a Local Authority Planner…… being an ultra marathon runner is optional.  #BeNiceToPlanners

Don’t be afraid to copy ideas from the past

I’m pleased to say that I am not old enough to remember World War 2 but I do just about remember the end of that last flush of post war building that created some of the post war town planning masterpieces and town planning horror shows. As a boy growing up in East London my vision of childhood was all about road building. I saw the M11 and M25 being built and then the M11 link road that took those nasty polluting lorries away from the road I had to cross to get to school and putting them in a tunnel. The idea of sustainable linked (and walkable) communities did not really feature in my thoughts as I toyed with the idea of becoming a Town Planner. What I really wanted to do more than anything else was to spend all day looking at maps because that’s what Planners do don’t they?

However when I turned up in Plymouth in the late 90s I became fascinated by post war rebuilding in Plymouth. A monocled, stiff suited gentleman named Patrick Abercrombie came up with some great ideas for rebuilding bombed out Plymouth after the war. As with his plans for London he did like big wide roads that cut through the heart of communities to enable the motor car to rule. However what fascinated me was his idea of sustainable linked communities even though he wouldn’t have understood that phrase. He wanted to create “neighbourhood grouping[s]; each group a compact self-contained entity. ”

I thought at the time that this was quite inspired and Abercrombie had created a walkable neighbourhood. Looking around Plymouth there was some evidence of sustainable neighbourhoods being created. However in the rush to house people and with the rapid rise of the car you had to sometimes look very hard to find these sustainable neighbourhoods. My impression was that Planners in post war Plymouth felt that the modern way of living with car ownership and the consumer preference to shop in “super” markets meant that Abercrombie’s plan could be assigned to the town planning recycling bin (or even a land fill site).

Then the idea of sustainable linked communities popped up again in the Urban Task Force report “Towards an Urban Renaissance” in 1999 and it looked like this.

However this time the word sustainability was coming into our vocabulary and the debate about man-made climate change was starting to be hotly debated. I believe we were up to COP5 in Bonn at the time, but according to Wikipedia “It was primarily a technical meeting, and did not reach major conclusions”; so let’s just say that climate change was not being taken as seriously as it is today. However whereas Abercrombie was not interested in climate change – because not even the outer fringes of the green lobbying groups had worked that one out – the Urban Task Force did consider the role that Planning makes in reducing man made climate change.

When I worked for Plymouth City Council we dined out on the phrase “sustainable linked communities” and it was the bedrock of the (award winning) Core Strategy that was adopted in 2007. The above diagram was even reproduced in the Core Strategy and the concept has been refined further in the subsequent Joint Local Plan.

And so to bring my time travelling journey to today I read an excellent article in the Planner by Rhiannon Moylan from Montagu Evans who wrote about the “20 Minute Neighbourhood”. Rhiannon rightly puts achieving net-zero at the heart of the reason for a sustainable linked neighbourhood. However if Abercrombie was transported to 2021 he might say “Wait a minute wasn’t that my idea?” He would probably also say “What the dickens is net-zero meant to mean?”

So what is the point of this blog apart from showing my age? Well it is to say that actually some of the best ideas in Planning come from rehashing old ideas but giving them a new twist. Abercrombie was inspired and, if you ignore his obsession for building big roads, a champion for reducing climate change. The 20 Minute Neighbourhood concept is brilliant and, in my view, should form the bedrock of Planning as a key component of achieving net-zero and we shouldn’t be worried that the idea originated from a time when we were doing all we could to drive up the temperature of the planet. We should ditch the bad ideas but not forget the good ones.

Finally I would like to also point out a key difference from the time of Abercrombie and now. Whilst I am far too young to have met Patrick Abercrombie I have seen his film on Plymouth. I’m sure he was a jolly nice chap, but let’s just say he had a paternal way about him and the only women seen in the film were either making tea or admiring Abercrombie for being such a great man who had come to make their lives better. The only people I could see on his team making decisions were white middle / upper class men. How could he really understand what a diverse community really wanted for their future? Well as we know from more enlightened commentators of the time women were making a significant impact on initiatives such as the Garden City movement. Thankfully times have moved on enormously even since the Urban Task Force and, whilst there is still so much more to do, the paternalistic world that Abercrombie and his team lived in is hopefully now fully consigned to history. The great Planners coming into the limelight now are there because they are great Planners and not due to their gender, parental background or ethnic makeup.