Planners and mental health

One of the things we do alongside the work we do for MHCLG is small, bespoke pieces of review work for councils. We are asked to provide an impartial and external review – sometimes it ends up being a full peer challenge and other times a narrow and quite specific part of the planning department. One week it is with a big London Borough, the next in a little rural district.

Because we are sometimes dealing with quite sensitive issues, and we are often making friendly and constructive criticisms, we don’t tend to talk about it very much. It is fascinating and valuable and very good personal development so I do some too- especially if there is a sense there might be more going at the council than meets the eye.

Occasionally there are broad themes that emerge from the review work that are worth saying something about. It might be about problem solving, or innovation. This post is about mental health in planning departments – and how we might need to up our collective game.

The way we run a review is very simple. We sit the staff in a room, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually and we listen to them. Very occasionally we might ask a simple question, but really the art is listening carefully and then finding a way to reflect back in a structured way what we’ve heard to the organisation. It often feels like group therapy. Almost always at least one person breaks down in tears. Usually this seems cathartic.

On a recent review the team met someone who caused a bit more concern. No tears, but a conversation that revealed a mind under enormous stress. We are not really therapists, so we can’t do much more than set “the work” to one side and have a frank conversation about mental health with this person. We offered an early warning, and tried to explain how sometimes stressed minds get to a point where “more thinking” is not going to work. During this conversation the team learned about each other that we had both had serious episodes of stress in the past.

Working away from home and staying in a hotel delivering a piece of support means you have space and time to review what happened each day. That evening the team compared notes – in the course of most reviews it is apparent that there are people (often senior people) under too much stress. It is obvious why – the process of Development Management is relentless, the forces at play are enormous and the political component means you are never sure when something is going to blow up in your face.

Acknowledging the inate stress in DM leads natually to the question – “what are we all doing about it ?”. What is our equivalent of the Samaritans phone workers helping each other decompress after a shift ? The answer seems to be nothing beyond trying to fix people after things have got too much. This is not good enough.

Given that the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the general population on development is so far from being won, and the way some anti-development groups are using social media to harrass people in planning the potential for stress is going to increase. This is something that requires an organisational response, and most of the answer is probably no more complicated than recognising it as a real thing, hanging together as a team and supporting each other.

I am confident that you will have noticed someone around the office who appears to be under great stress. Perhaps you have thought about saying something at some point. My unscientific straw poll suggests it is most likely a planning enforcement officer. I can tell you that these conversations are easier than you think.

Like me you probably have a poster about mental health in the office kitchen. They go some way to helping normalise it, and they certainly made me more confident about explicitly bringing the topic into our work on planning reviews. But if I am right DM is almost uniquely tough and a generic council poster is not enough. What does (should ?) your organisation do to look after you ?


Simon Says

The first of two reflections from me following our “Head of Planning” conference a couple of weeks ago. To be entirely frank it didn’t get off to the most spectacular start with our special guest speaker having to cancel at short notice.

Life in PAS is full of twists and turns so I decided to embrace the space we had inadvertedly generated for ourselves and run a short session called “Simon Says” – where we imagined the speech that we would have wanted our special guest to have made. In time-honoured fashion we got our tables to use it as an ice-breaker and scribbled it up the results on flip chart paper.

What an amazing mixture

It was always going to be quite a challenging set of asks, especially from heads of planning. As a matter of historical record, here is the list very lightly edited to remove a bit of duplication:

  1. One size does not fit all
  2. Spatial Planning – what are your thoughts on how this works?
  3. Explain the CIL / s106 debacle
  4. When will the CIL regs be published ?
  5. Encourage greater recognition of planning across government departments. Treat it with a more positive outlook rather than an obstacle
  6. Remove PD office to resi – this is creating the slums of the future
  7. Infrastructure delivery before the building of new homes
  8. Letwin review – what is government’s response ?
  9. Require more flexibility for housing delivery test and interpretation
  10. Consider squeeze on affordability and viability
  11. S73a – simplify
  12. Audit of 20% should be required then there would be no pressure from the finance department
  13. Viability – it’s frustrating as this is an exercise of smoke & mirrors and emphasis on viability by government makes it dangerous
  14. Minister talks about good design but PD rights are hypocritical to this
  15. Is government listening ? And / or moving ?

In my own view, once lots of complaints about a lack of responsiveness and general perceptions of unfairness are set to one side the most important points were made by the very first table.

One size does not fit all

It is a very basic question: where on the spectrum between central and local control should planning sit ? It is a question that doesn’t have a correct answer, and it may be that different parts of the planning system should sit at different points [as is already the case with NSIP]. However many of the other points in this list about infrastructure, quality and delivery suggest to me that the application of a single national policy to a complex pattern of local markets is leading to what we might call sub-optimal outcomes.

Spatial Planning – how does this work?

The preparatory moves required to shift planning policy from “very central” towards “more local” is I think starting to happen – slightly unsteadily and unevenly for sure. It is evident in the aspirations of some of the Combined Authorities and in the work that we have begun to scope out as part of our own strategic planning programme led by Nicola.

We are starting work with some regions (there, I’ve said it) shortly, and helping them articulate the added value of strategic development strategies. If done well, in ways that add value and deliverablity, these types of plan may well be part of the process of loosening the central control of key policies. More on this, no doubt, later this year.

Briefing the new NPPF

I was asked to speak to one of our regional groups (HIOWLGA – don’t ask me to pronounce it) last week. It’s a group of leaders and CExs and they wanted me to take them through the implications of the new NPPF / NPPG.

There is nothing like the polite attention of a room full of clever people to force a bit of introspection and reflection. What do I really think they should know about the NPPF ? And how important is it all really when compared to the intense gloom and doom over finances ?

I don’t think it’s good enough for the proper website, but I’ll pop it here in case anyone else finds something in it to reuse. One of the CEx told me afterwards that he had already been briefed on the NPPF, but compared to how I’d approached it there had been a veil of gauze over the issues. I think it was a compliment – at least that is how I took it.

Sorry there aren’t any speakers notes – the slides are fairly self-explanatory and I just took people through it in my customary manner. Lots of questions but I don’t think my answers were good enough to be worth setting out here.

Notes on the Housing Delivery Test and Action Plans


Ever since the Housing Delivery Test (HDT) was mooted in the “right homes in the right places” Housing White Paper we have been trying to get our heads round what is means in practice.

We have been nibbling away at this with pilot councils of various shapes and sizes for almost a year and we are a few weeks away from publishing our thoughts on how councils should respond to this new requirement. In advance of the “proper” versions here is what I have learned along the way.

Is the Housing Delivery Test a good thing ?

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Reflections on the 2018 NPPF

As has become standard PAS supported a team of officials from MHCLG presenting a series of roadshows around the country throughout April and May 2018. We did 10 events, and spoke with about 450 people from 204 councils. This sort of gig provides plenty of sparky people with interesting points of view, as well as protracted periods of time sitting on trains reflecting on how it all stacks up for local government.


So, what follows are my own personal thoughts – and remember that all of this is a consultation at the moment so it very much represents this moment in time. And, of course, the issues that tend to come out in debate and discussion are the difficult, awkward ones which will make this list sound a bit negative. Those that know me will tell you I am a little ray of sunshine and I find negativity very difficult. Nontheless,  alongside the standard themes of “who is going to pay for all this ?” and “everyone is too busy to think about and deliver this change in a sensible way” are five big thoughts: Continue reading

Planning and the GDPR

I’ve been on a little voyage with the GDPR. Originally I argued that we needed to do a quick “heads up” on the key points for planners. There was (to be honest) a little bit of humming and aahing about whether planning was “special” enough to deserve something sector-specific, but then in the end it was agreed that we were. Just something “quick and dirty”, so off I went.

Thanks to lots of planners who asked me questions, thanks to the ICO and MHCLG, thanks to Umbreen and the ALBPO TS group, and thanks to Cheshire West & Chester we will be making something public in the next week or so that I hope will be a first step towards a practitioners guide. We can then evolve it as questions get addressed and we make joint decisions about how to behave in the grey areas.

For now, though, and in advance of the official, signed-off version I thought I’d give you my own thoughts on all this.  Continue reading

IR35 and agency Planners

[13th Sept – this post was edited to make it clear that the IR35 changes are in the past – it is the impact of the changes that are still being felt]

There are changes afoot. IR35 (also known as off-payroll) rules changed this year and it will affect people who have formed their own one-man bands to sell themselves to planning departments. The short version is that the employer now needs to decide whether a worker is “in” or “out” and there are tax implications (and potential back-tax implications) that flow from this.

This only the latest in a series of changes of this kind, and there is a broader debate about fairness that I’m not interested in right now. There is also the issue about overall Planning capacity that I’m not going to go into either. My point is – what will the impact of this change be on rates ?

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