Reflections on the Housing White Paper

We finished our event series on the HWP yesterday, and before the memory starts to fade I thought I’d try to set out my thoughts. This is a personal reflection rather than the FAQ (and member briefing) on the HWP that we have separately promised to make.

What the HWP means for Local Plans

Most obviously the HWP disrupts the local plan system in three ways Continue reading

20% reduction in subsidy

I was asked the other day whether I thought the proposed 20% increase in planning fees would lead to increased resources in planning departments. It was a live interview, so my innate grumpiness and cynicism meant that I answered in the negative. Since then I have been thinking about that question a bit more deeply, so I thought I would unpack my thoughts on it and see if I would answer differently today.

The fee increase

A quick summary then. DCLG have written a “dear CEx” letter to all planning authorities, offering them a deal. In this letter they say that councils can charge an extra 20% on top of the nationally set planning fees if they can demonstrate that this extra income is spent on planning services. The proposal is an offer of a voluntary ring-fence to councils. Most people I know have accepted it, and will work out the details as they go – although I’ve also heard that some councils are turning it down.  Continue reading

A call for sites (with a twist)

I was at a SEEC event last week, providing some facilitation for a table of councillors. It was a great event featuring many people already delivering housing and associated infrastructure. Inspiring stuff, but I don’t think anyone will blame me if I say that it was economic adviser Tim Leunig who gave me the most food for thought from the day.

Speaking quickly and with candour he was an excellent closing speaker. There was no shuffling coats on, or packing up of papers, while he set out a challenge for the room. I’ve been turning it over a bit in my mind since, so this post may not be a true reflection of what he said so treat this as “inspired by” rather than “as related by” Tim. Continue reading

What are planning applications?

It feels like we are heading towards another shake-down of the planning system. Or, rather, it feels like we are going to get shaken down at least twice. The first will be led by our new Government as it looks to streamline the system. The second will be led by councils as they attempt to shed work and cost in order to make ends meet.

I’ve been wondering how we might help. After all we in PAS probably know more about the inner workings of planning departments than anyone else alive. We continue to do lots of work with councils but most of it is done in private. I believe that anyone setting out to change the planning system should start by understanding what it does, so this post is an attempt to share a little evidence base. Continue reading

Can we just start again?

It is clear that resources are back on the Planning agenda, and in the context of ferocious pressure across local government that has got to be a sensible thing. As a consequence we’ve been returning to some work from a few years ago; helping councils in various configurations think about their fees, costs and productivity.

In amongst all this I had a moment of sudden realisation the other day. Despite the fact that localised fee-setting could be extremely good business for PAS and we are uniquely well situated with our masses of historical data it’s the wrong thing to do*. Trying to allocate little bits of cost on the various bits of the planning process as presently configured is hopelessly compromised. Much better, in my view, is just to start thinking about the planning application process from scratch.  Continue reading

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

I was spending some time this week doing some ground work with a group of councils. Nothing exciting – just establishing across a dozen or so organisations how much work there was, of what type, and how many people were involved in dealing with it. Just preparing the ground so that we have some facts with which to predict whether the ideas we’ll end up piloting are going to have any real impact. As a way of breaking up the day, I decided to run a short interlude based on something I’d read recently.

Side note: we work in a professional context and it is really easy to read ‘Planning’ and related blogs and news sites and stay in the ‘bubble’. For years I have been arguing that planners who want to get on should read MJ – council leaders need people who can understand broader organisational pressures.

More recently, I’ve come to realise that broadening the variety of news is only part of the story. It’s even more important to develop your thinking. Years ago I stumbled into the Farnham Street blog and over the course of my lunchtimes I think I have read every word.

The session I ran on Friday was based on the post Warren Berger’s three-part method for more creativity.

Why is there a problem?

The process began with asking a deliberately broad and ill-defined question. Why is there a problem? As you might imagine with a group of 20 or so there was a mixture of awkward silence and a wide variety of ‘big’ and ‘small’ answers. Some examples:

  • There isn’t a real problem, it is one of perception
  • There is a lack of consistency across our organisations
  • The regulations by which we operate are crap
  • We represent a delay to people trying to get things done
  • We mediate competing interests, each side will see us a different problem
  • There is lots of process and little value created by it

The method offered by Warren Berger then goes on to suggest follow-up questions that move through the problem-solving process. At the time, I bailed on the process (the sandwiches had arrived) because it was clear that we as a group had a problem about our problem. As usual for me, it took a bit of reflection and a pint at The Murderers to be able to put it into words.

Oooh yes, let’s do ‘transformation’

Projects in local government are often arrived at by way of horse trading. If this then that. In our case, if ‘transformation’ then ‘flexibility’. Because the goal is expressed in terms than can mean many different things to different people the hard work at the outset is skipped. And this is true for projects that have ‘deliverables’ and all that jazz – a set of deliverables does not solve a problem.

And this clarity about the problem matters. It became clear as we were wrapping up for the day that there were several versions of an unspoken problem around the table. There are two consequences of this absence of definition

  • “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved” [Charles “Boss” Kettering]: by not saying the problem out loud its impossible to understand whether the actions you’re proposing are going to solve it. And that matters because …
  • It’s surprisingly easy to make things worse rather than better. Failing projects don’t represent a lack of improvement – they often lead to things getting worse

What does a good problem look like ?

It’s not for me to suggest what the correct problem is for this group. However I can offer a couple of example problems to show how important it is to create the right framework at the outset:

  1. Our costs are too high to compete with the private sector
  2. We are not ready to compete with the private sector

Problem 1 is (I think) where some people are in the group. It leads to a rigorous focus on cost, probably to restructuring with the intention of reducing overheads and having slightly better economies of scale.

Problem 2 has a broader focus – what is it that we should be thinking about ? It leads naturally on to more questions, and ultimately more problems. How and why do customers choose ? Is price important to them? How do convenience, reliability and risk feature ? Where do buying decisions happen ? What is it that we (as planning authorities) can do differently to other sorts of organisation ?

The two problems illustrate how it is easy to bake assumptions in at the outset that restrict creative responses further down the line. It’s not natural for planners to think like marketers, and probably most would recoil from thinking about how we might create barriers to entry for the private sector. But if we don’t frame the problem creatively we will just unthinkingly go into another round of cost-cutting rather than making the most of the brainpower and talent we have in councils.

 

Funding the planning system

The early stages of a project are brilliant. Everyone is still keen, and the team’s natural inclination is to think big, bold, exciting thoughts. We’re doing some work with some forward-thinking councils about how ‘devo’ might work out in practice, and how a deal might be struck between a region and the government – a “something for something” arrangement as they are now described.

What does “fee flexibility” mean ?

February’s big technical consultation document set out some challenges to local government. It made the case that locally set fees doesn’t work in a monopoly situation, but suggested two cases where flexibility might be created:

  • as part of a devo deal – “we are keen to see proposals for ambitions reforms in the way planning services are delivered, and which can enable greater flexibility in the way that fees are set”
  • where there is a competitive market

My own starting point for imagining what this means is to offer up some service improvements in return for closing the gap between existing fees and costs:

cost recovery

This is the “thinking small” version that I think I started with. We could propose some cheap improvements (more consistent pre-application; simpler validation requirements) and get an above-inflation increase in fees.

But then AlicePalace challenged me: where does that get you ? Yes, cash-strapped councils will be glad to be able to use that top-up money for something else. But there is no extra – the sources of the money are different but nothing transformational has happened. If developers are prepared to pay more it is only on the basis that services improve, and this move to cost recovery doesn’t create any more capacity. And it’s capacity, at many places, that is the issue.

Funding the planning system

It is only at the beginning of projects that people have the mental agility and energy to make big leaps and creative connections. We began by proposing something that might allow the planning applications office to cover it’s costs, but left enforcement and policy to fend for themselves. What about a completely different way of framing the problem ? And so, in a windowless office in a very hot council building, we wondered what an easy solution would look like:

norwich proposition

Planning is a process that increases value. Why shouldn’t it collect part of that value on the way ?

And there were further creative hops along the way. Councils might be skint, but they are very big and stable institutions who (by and large) do not need to obsess over cash flow. Why should they charge small builders (or self builders) at the beginning of the process? Why not agree to collect a levy only when the first house is sold ? Planners could have a role like an old-fashioned bank manager – get acquainted with the developer, assess the project and if it is a goer become a partner. Interests can align without predetermination.

Next steps

Of course, I know we’ve just circled back to an idea of linking planning and land values that has cropped up every decade or two since Planning began. Chances are, we’re not going to succeed where so many others have failed. And, no doubt, the other parts of the project will end up becoming a bit of a slog and every ounce of creativity will be squeezed out by templated reports and risk registers. But working with zingy people in creative councils who allow themselves to think big thoughts is a buzz and I’m very grateful and lucky to be a part of it.