Let’s get digital, digital – how the planning sector is taking baby steps towards a digitised dream destination

Let’s get digital, digital

I wanna get digital                                                                
Let’s get into digital
Let me hear your data talk, your data talk
Let me hear your data talk

Olivia Newton-John doing Lets get Physical but with my head on it!

It’s been a year of involvement in digital projects here at PAS and 2022 looks to be much more of the same with many of the more widely supported planning reform proposals for a digital revolution of the planning system having begun already. But what is actually meant by the word ‘Digitalisation’?? well to be frank it’s a non-word and is trying to capture various strands of change and innovation in the sector.  Some strands are related to modernising ways of working with increased transparency and some strands are about better use of data, new tools and automating processes. Within the wider planning world there is some criticism that the speed of change is coming too fast and that planners will all be replaced by AI robots. So, should we fear this digitisation steam-train coming down the track? Absolutely not, but we should be prepared to guide the digital agenda towards improvements in how we work for the better rather than change for the sake of change. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of areas where improved data will be welcomed with open arms.

Before we take the initial step: right now, we do monitoring badly

The current state of affairs is we can even answer some basic questions such as ‘Do you decisions or policies work?’. Take, for example, the monitoring of housing; many planning teams still rely on counting net additions only once a year and using the yard stick of ‘is there a net curtain in the window’! For many other policies and decisions, we aren’t able to monitor the right indicators to know whether the plans we make are successful – we don’t even know what we don’t know. This is even more true for emerging issues, how on earth are we going to capture data on carbon impacts, water usage, health/wellbeing improvements????

Where is it all heading?: we need to keep our eyes on the destination

Everyone and by that, I mean everyone involved in the planning sector e.g. LPA officers, digital specialist, DLUHC need to start with the end goal of digitisation in mind. The journey to a digitised planning system is going to be a long one and there is a danger we will take our eyes off the end goal and simply look down at our feet, concentrating on the next step ahead and before we know it we have veered off the path & into the deep dark woods.

So, what is the end goal? what is the utopian dream of a digitised planning system? Well, if we look to other industries who have gone through their digital revolution such as retail, we start to get a few clues. For a start when tech is good it is invisible, you don’t even realise that AI and software platforms are involved everything just happens seamlessly and is integrated with other parts of your life, such as receiving a text that your order has been dispatched. Smart homes are another example of where the tools and technology are seamless at just making life easy.  Planning is definitely at the start of that journey towards an integrated and seamless utopia. We are starting to work on the small jigsaw puzzle pieces needed to make those initial first steps.

Over the last 18months I have had the privilege of having insight into a number of the digital projects and sprints being undertaken as part of exploring the possibilities for planning reform. Each of these bits of work have focussed on a particular part of the system or a process an LPA undertakes, for example some projects have looked at automating validation of planning applications, using A.I. to read and filter Local Plan reps, using GIS to create a fully geospatial local plan and creating data standards for how LPAs produce data on sites. What struct me during those projects was there is a clear need, while we create all these individual pieces of the jigsaw, to keep the one eye on that digitisation journey. Planning is not isolated from the rest of world and is not an abstract ‘thing’ in its own right – Planning is about the world so we need to make sure any progress we are making is all integrated. We must not lose sight of that.

While we’re on the road: don’t lose the planning magic

The more I learn about potential digital solutions or tech tools the more I realise these ‘bits of kit’ really are starting with the fundamentals of codes, formulas, data schemes, rules and shapes. But this isn’t where the ‘planning’ magic happens though! the most interesting bit of planning is the placemaking – that wibbly wobbly moulding of spaces and places that we actually got into the planning profession for. Data and rules-based assessment can help but there are some elements of place making and planning judgement that digitising the system will be unable to replace. The dream and the reality of what ‘digitisation’ of planning can achieve might be very different.

Each step should make life easier:  let’s not keep doing bad planning faster

So, with all these cautions, should we resist the coming tide of digitisation??? Well, I don’t think we can and, in any event, this is pushing at an open door. Most LPA planners I’ve spoken to in the last 18months say digitisation was the part of the ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals they were actually excited about. This is an area of planning reform which definitely has support across the public & private sector divide. Digitising the system will happen but only if makes the way we work easier, simpler and quite frankly more fun. When digital tools add burdens to workloads or don’t add tangible benefit, they tend not to be successful. A classic example is the brownfield register process, whilst it might be a shining example of collecting consistent information using set data standards in reality it hasn’t achieved its original aim of realising brownfield sites to the SME development market and many LPAs view it as yet another data collection they need to undertake with very little point. We need to ‘show the world’ through this journey to digitisation the extra value of placemaking and answer the question ‘what does the better use of data buy?’. The creation of tools to use, automating processes and creating digital versions of what once was a paper document is all well and good; but making things digital for sake of just being digital is not going to be good, it will just digital but bad.

Tools and tech to help processes such as assessing SHLAA sites or monitoring housing completions become easier and automated is great and I can see many time saving efficiencies. But tools are only as good as how we use them; let’s not keep doing bad planning but faster.

Who is up for the journey?: capacity building in planners

Whenever I hear industry commentators speak about the role digitisation in planning reform the issue of resources and skills in councils gets raised. There seems to be a lack of faith that a new digital way of working will be within the capacity of local authority planners. I respectfully disagree; there are plenty of amazing planners working in councils who have the digital/GIS skills and the ability to implement digitisation and would happily adopt new tools and tech into their work. The problem is they aren’t current given the headspace to innovate or the time to drive digital transformation. Digitisation simply isn’t in the core business of churning the apps and making a plan – the hamster wheel of a planning department! Most of the private sector involved in the digitisation of planning have extensive research and development programmes with new solutions being tried and tested, yet councils who have any time or resources for planning R&D are few and far between. This seems ridiculous as most of the solutions and innovations being created will have LPA planners are the ultimate primary user. Don’t get me wrong user research involving LPA planners is happening and is, of course, worthwhile. But what we gave LPAs themselves the creative headspace to come up with digital solutions that were actually tailored to the problems.

Over the next 5-10yrs the world, and how planning operates within that world, will be very different. A digitised planning system and using smarter data will have become a core part of how we make places. However, at this point in time, right now – LPAs are so busy doing the day job, it leaves the question where does the innovation come from?

Thanks to my friend Mary for the lovely photoshopped image of me as Olivia Newton-John having listened to me go on about digitisation all year @maryindevon (Mary Elkington – Figura Planning)


Biodiversity net gain – looking for perfection in an imperfect world?

I thought I’d write a blog to celebrate the 18th anniversary of when I started working in planning for the natural environment with English Nature in Kent. Looking back on my career, I feel we’re in a more positive place than we have ever been in terms of environmental planning, but we are also much more aware of the huge challenges we face – Monday’s IPCC report and its ‘code red for humanity’ bringing these into sharp focus. My feeling is we’ll only deal with these challenges if we take action now and learn as we go, not expecting any solution to be perfect, but taking small steps to move us forward all the time.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running workshops for local authority officers and Councillors to inform our PAS project helping LPAs get ready for mandatory biodiversity net gain. These have generated a huge amount of useful information and input both for our project, but also to pass on to Defra and Natural England as they develop details of how the scheme will work. 

There is a lot of positivity out there about this new initiative, but also significant concern about how it’s going to work. How can overwhelmed planning departments with no ecological expertise make decisions on whether an application is compliant? How do we avoid developers gaming the system? How do we make sure this actually delivers gains? Won’t biodiversity net gain make schemes unviable?

In the meantime, there have been some articles in the press criticising biodiversity net gain, seeing it as a spreadsheet exercise or numbers game and implying that it will lead to more habitat loss and environmental destruction, plus that it is incompatible with ‘re-wilding’.

At the moment, we don’t have all the details of how mandatory biodiversity net gain will work, as the Environment Bill provisions will be accompanied by secondary legislation and guidance. However, we do know that a number of key safeguards mean it should be a significant improvement on what happens now. An important point is that biodiversity net gain does not replace any of the existing protections for sites, habitats and species in place now, nor does it replace the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ of avoid impacts first, then mitigate them and only compensate as a last resort. We also know that net gain provisions will not apply to certain irreplaceable habitats (as yet to be confirmed, but undoubtedly to include ancient woodland) and that councils will receive ‘new burdens’ funding to implement the new requirements.

Undeniably there are issues with biodiversity net gain and it won’t (and doesn’t yet) work perfectly, but we need to compare it to the currently very imperfect system where the majority of unprotected habitats (outside designated sites, like SSSIs) are lost through development and not replaced in any way, even to achieve no net loss. 

The Biodiversity Metric provides a way of calculating habitat losses and gains to enable us to try and achieve a net gain. Yes, it’s not perfect and it does simplify things, but the new Biodiversity Metric 3.0 is a huge improvement on the previous 2.0 version (despite recent media reports, which almost exclusively related to issues with the old v.2.0). 

We need a system that is workable and given the complexities of nature and ecosystems, that will always have to simplify and cannot possibly take everything into account. Also, the metric is not the be-all-and-end-all, the system around it really matters. We need strategic planning for nature and the right resources and expertise to make good policy and decisions (on biodiversity net gain, but also existing nature-related planning provisions). This Natural England blog and Tony Juniper’s introduction to the metric on YouTube (about 4 mins in) explain this eloquently. 

Thinking back to 2003 when even trying to protect an internationally designated site for nature was a battle, I no longer feel like I’m waving from the sidelines. Biodiversity net gain, along with a number of other tools and initiatives, offer us a huge opportunity to address the crises we face and create better places for people and nature. 

Yes, we need to be aware of the issues with new approaches and try to resolve them, but we also need to start giving this a go and try it out – in the end biodiversity net gain is going to be mandatory in a couple of years’ time and we’ll have no choice but to get on and do it. That way, we’ll also be able to test and improve as we go (as has happened with the metric). 

I don’t think we’ll ever have a perfect solution – nature doesn’t follow rules – but BNG is a lot better than what we have now, where the majority of development leads to outright biodiversity loss, not even no net loss. So that’s what I plan to do with this project – help LPAs get started and give biodiversity net gain a go, sharing existing good practice and showing how it can work and move us another (quite big) step forward.

Infrastructure Delivery Plans: What if they actually delivered?

Last week I tuned in to the RTPI’s #Plantalk session with Sara Dilmamode, Director of Citiesmode, on infrastructure delivery plans. In the title of her presentation Sara raised a fundamental question that I think on reflection will resonate with many, that is “Infrastructure delivery plans: What if they actually delivered?”.

Sara and I have worked together recently on the development of the PAS advice note “Start with the spend in mind”. This is aimed at helping local authority senior leadership teams to understand the role(s) of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and Section 106 Planning Obligations (S106). At the heart of this advice note is the push for the recognition that local authorities have a fundamental role in leading from the front the coordination and delivery of infrastructure to support their areas. This will of course become ever more important as we reflect and plan for the impacts of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in terms of how we continue to shape the places within which we live and work and what demands this places on existing, or the need for new, infrastructure.

Effective infrastructure planning, prioritisation and importantly the governance of spend are critical to supporting our communities and the delivery of sustainable development and growth. Like many things in the planning system infrastructure planning is continually evolving and it is imperative that this is reflected in an authority’s governance process. Developing Infrastructure delivery Plans (IDPs) as static evidence documents to support a local plan at a fixed point in time with no commitment to a periodic, and of course proportionate, update can render such documents in the longer term purposeless. IDPs often take the form of long wish lists that can become out of date very quickly and which fail to provide any form of prioritisation for bringing forward the infrastructure that is required to support the delivery of
the local plan.

Kept alive and up to date IDPs do have the ability to help an authority to prioritise and deliver the infrastructure that is required to support its area. But this needs to be a coordinated approach by an authority with strong leadership, clear processes, effective governance and a continual dialogue with infrastructure providers and users. There is immense value in getting people around a table and this is the number one lesson that I learned from my former boss, Graham King, when working on the redevelopment of Paddington Basin and the delivery of critical infrastructure back in the naughties.

There is other good practice out there, including Greater Norwich and Chichester District Council who are mentioned in the #Plantalk session and the PAS advice note. Their commitment to clear governance processes is enabling the delivery of infrastructure through the effective spend of developer contributions and other funding sources.

The requirement to produce an Infrastructure Funding Statement (IFS) by the end of this year should not be approached with trepidation. Whilst there will inevitably be for some authorities hard work to be undertaken to bring together the required information, an IFS offers the opportunity to showcase effective governance of developer contributions, infrastructure delivery and consensus for future priorities.

I would urge you and your leadership teams to watch the RTPI’s #Plantalk session with Sara and read our advice note “Start with the spend in mind”and raise the profile of this incredibly important area of work within your authority.

Neither big nor clever

Your Local Development Scheme. A pain? A millstone? An enigma wrapped inside a tissue of lies? It doesn’t have to be any of those things. All you have to do is get a page on your website which puts the formal stages up and, usefully, any forthcoming consultations. Then, set out when you’re planning to meet them and….that’s it. Yes, really!

If you have to change it, just alter it and show how it has changed. You could even try seasons for things in later stages.

So why is it that so many authorities keep republishing 10, 20 or 30 plus pages? They lovingly describe the heartbreaking lack of progress to date, the endless consult-a-go-rounds that have happened since 2010. They highlight that wonderful period from 2011 to 2015 when you were ‘going through the representations’ before returning to a ‘further additional extra this time I know it’s for real’ preferred options (with time allowed for further modifications). There are pages and pages about documents already adopted and usually lots of legal gumph about prescribed periods and out of date regulation numbers.

So, that’s the LDS. Make it a ‘one-page web-page next-bus-style announcement using seasons not months’.

But how do you know you’re getting close to getting that assessment of time right? What lies beneath? How will you make sure you meet those milestones so that when DCLG come calling you can tell them….that everything is on track, thank you for the interest.

At PAS, we have been looking at the main reasons where slippage has occurred. Whilst there is a chance that in some cases, it would have been almost impossible to avoid, it is almost always possible to see it coming.

So, to give you every chance of planning ahead, setting and agreeing a timetable that can withstand the forces of evil that seek to derail, we have come up with….a sort of a table and a chart and some words.

It isn’t big, just like your LDS shouldn’t be, and it isn’t particularly clever, just like the person who wrote it. It’s just something for you to be able to refer to, to take a breath and just scan the horizon. Take stock of what you have, assess what you need, and understand who to involve and when.

It’s available to all our subscribers, and open for comments from you to suggest improvements. Many thanks to the people who helped us to make it by contributing their thoughts and coming along to the event.

Putting your mouth where the money is

This blog is about a new initiative from the senior planning managers at Swindon Borough Council Called “Rising to the Challenge”.  They have rightly appreciated that to meet current challenges in local areas, it’s necessary that more than just the Planners and Economic Development officers understand the advantages of a managed, growing economy alongside all the other challenges of a healthy population and vibrant places.

Swindon Borough Council do have a strong wish to grow their economy.  They were the fastest growing area of the country in the 1970s and then had a bit of a decline in fortunes as the heavy industries that this blue collar town relied on moved away or died.  But now Swindon is back and hungry.

Swindon had an “Open for Business” peer challenge from PAS a couple of years ago.  They say that helped to make the step towards the planning service (officers and members) becoming more aligned to the needs of delivering investment growth through new developments and being responsive to the needs of businesses.  It also helped to foster an appreciation that success was going to be more assured if the development was high quality and aligned to a planned spatial strategy that set a framework for decision making.

The new initiative is to run a series of  seminars called “Rising to the challenge”.  The purpose of the Seminars is to help Swindon grapple with the big planning challenges ahead by getting in leading thinkers / practitioners to speak on the issues to help guide their approach.  Speakers are being brought in from a range of local and national organisations, other towns and other parts of the council.  The audience is as wide as they can manage from councillors, community voices , interest groups and people from a range of council services and public sector bodies and developers.  The seminars are hosted in Swindon’s great Steam Museum – a potent reminder of how heritage can be conserved and turned in the direction of the future – and a venue that made people feel good/valued at having been invited.

I went along to the seminar last week when the topic was  “Delivering Good Growth”.  Speakers included an inspirational talk from Peter Studdart about the Cambridge experience and a pithy talk about where Swindon is among the galaxy of similar (maybe competing) towns in terms of a range of indicators of economic health from Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities. The afternoon sessions looked at working with the LEP and the work going forward in partnership with the HCA on a range of schemes especially delivering the necessary infrastructure for  essential town centre regeneration schemes and the housing urban extension at Wichelstowe (2 of several). The final speaker wrapped up the day with a great talk that pulled together all the threads of activity in their growth strategy, and set them in the context of the aligned local plan, business plan and economic development strategies.

The audience were clearly caught by the ideas judging by the animated discussion that followed.  I didn’t catch any whiff of NIMBYist “alright in principle, but…”.  There was plenty of talk about what was good design in terms of Swindon.

The seminar topics are

  • Good Design (presentations here)
  • Delivering Infrastructure to support growth  (presentations  here)
  • Delivering Good Growth (presentations here)
  • Planning for an ageing population ( seminar 15 December)
  • Planning for a Healthy Swindon
  • Citizen engagement in the Planning of Swindon

This was about a council really taking the time not just to do consultation with their community, but really pulling out the stops to change hearts and minds about attitudes to development – making the situation real, talking about consequences without shroud waving and showcasing the breadth of ambition across the whole local authority area… and it was being lead and coordinated by planners.




Planning: say yes!

My final act of eighteen months at PAS as the Comms Manager is to write a blog about what I’ve learned about planning. I knew next to nothing at the start – now I’m a little bit wiser… but not a lot.

Of course, it’s the large developments that get the headlines – and certainly get the public’s attention. It’s a tough old business. More houses are needed, but hardly anyone would welcome development in their area. But this you all know.

Being a local authority planner could be seen as rather like being a football referee – as long as the decisions go someone’s way they hardly notice the referee; but the moment it doesn’t…

Politics really does get in the way. In a perfect planning world politics would be taken out of planning and ‘vote for me cos I’ll block this’ would be outlawed. (As Adam Dodgshon has previously blogged about.) But this ain’t gonna happen. Sadly.

One of my favourite words is ‘however’. However, local authority planners can and do wear white hats. (However can be such an uplifting word!)

Local authority planners can be involved in some truly inspiring projects and can bring joy to hundreds or even thousands. I live in a new-build flat and I love it… so thanks developers and thanks local authority planners who helped make this happen. Areas can be literally redeveloped. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those unused horrible looking brownfield or wasteland sites could be something colourful and beneficial to communities – you can make this happen!

Another of my favourite words is ‘yes’. Even better if it’s ‘Yes!’ From what I’ve picked up, it would be great if more often planners said:

– Yes! to pre-app engagement

– Yes! to embracing technology to keep customers informed (which saves time and money)

– Yes! to actively engaging communities on projects

– Yes! to forming regional groups to learn from each other and share best practice

– Yes! to writing more in the style of Hemingway (sparse prose, rather than wordy and rambly)

– Yes! to using the superb (and free) help on offer from PAS. (I couldn’t resist.)

In summary, it can be a frustrating business, for sure, but if you persevere you can help build something long-lasting. And not many folk can say that.

Housing crisis – There is about to be a new government – it will be fine…

Listening to Radio 4, women from Bexley were talking about when they were young – they got married, lived with their parents for a year to save a deposit for a house, and then bought one. They went on to say that now there was no way their children could do that.

Who’s fault is that? One said the government had to do something  and another said that the government couldn’t do anything, and it was all because we were too soft letting too many people into the country.

The impact of the ageing population still living in their houses, some people still having babies increasing the need for supply, years of undersupply and decreasing affordability, exacerbated in some areas by the domestic draw of economic prosperity; seems to be forgotten by the ‘immigration’ viewpoint put forward particularly in the press.

There is just not enough housing nor is there enough planning for housing. And there’s increasing resistance to housing in many areas – often where the need and demand is highest. Essentially, people don’t like change; people particularly don’t like change that in any way undermines their personal life experiences.

What makes people resistant to new housing development (I have been here before https://planningadvisor.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/what-we-want-is-economic-growth-but-not-house-building/) is lack of infrastructure and lack of the provision of affordable housing for those in their community. People will resist when they find that they can’t get their child/grandchild into the local school, when it is more difficult to get a doctor’s appointment etc.

People fail to connect that their view of not wanting new development next to them, in their town, on their countryside, to why their children are still living at home at 26 – and why the generation of 20+ now don’t contemplate ‘family’ life as they are still living in their mum and dad’s back bedroom.

So surely, the government, house builders, developers, land agents and all the others involved in the industry know this…? Well, yes, but effectively tackling the infrastructure issue appears too challenging and politically the issue of more housing at a local level is toxic in many areas. So, the main political parties appear to agree that there is a housing shortage but… they will need to translate national rhetoric to local policies in action – they will have to demonstrate leadership and bottle to deliver and meet the needs of the country and its population, particularly the young. To do this they will need to take on the vocal ‘middle-aged’ middle class and the self-interested landowners, developers, housebuilders etc..

At present some government policies have made it more difficult to achieve the provision of affordable housing and housing accompanied by infrastructure.

The CIL Regs which now prohibit pooling five or more s106 obligations (as a reason for granting planning permission), with only a third of local authorities having a CIL in place, will mean that many authorities have no mechanism to collect contributions towards the necessary infrastructure that communities crave. This lack of a mechanism may make it impossible to get contributions to even basic mitigation which may result in the refusal of development including market and affordable housing development that are so desperately needed.

In addition, both CIL and now S106 net off existing vacant floorspace – further reducing the LPA’s ability to seek contributions to infrastructure and affordable housing respectively.

I have before voiced concern about the issue of viability, land value and the role of the land owner (https://planningadvisor.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/do-the-landed-aristocracy-hold-the-key/) if this is appreciated as a crisis – harming lives and the country’s prosperity – the role and expectation of the landowner needs to come under scrutiny and be addressed by government.

All that said, an obvious difficulty is that the planning system keeps changing – local planning authorities (LPAs) keep getting knocked off course with their plan making and their CIL. Every time something changes they have to review their evidence, update their evidence, spend more money, get council approval and so on… An example of this is six changes to the CIL regulations in five years and changes by examiners to the interpretation of these regulations, most notably in relation to viability and affordable housing.

Changes to s106 and CIL knock on to plan-making and plan wide viability. And, finally, the challenges of objectively assessed need and duty to cooperate (with no regional plan), which need to be balanced, should not be underestimated as obstacles to the planning and delivery of housing.

But don’t worry – there is about to be a new government – it will be fine..

Community Infrastructure Levy hits Housebuilding – If only it were that simple!

Savills’ recent report, referred to by Planning and the FT – http://offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk/NewsAttachments/RLP/SpotlightCILIs_it_delivering.pdf – seem to suggest the correlation between introducing a CIL and an area not being attractive for house building is simple. I don’t think it is a clear correlation to say CIL makes the area less attractive for house building.

Firstly there are very few authorities with CIL – many of them have relatively recently adopted it – Savills’ evidence base is not huge (16 local authorities). Nearly all of those that have a CIL already had a plan in place. These may have already consented much of their growth and will have allocated sites that have been the subject of planning consents that are already being built out – in the best plan led fashion. That cannot be said for all the authorities in the country.

Also, as identified by Savills, there is a huge a spike in the numbers of planning applications being granted subject to s106 obligations at every authority pre the adoption of a CIL. Many of these schemes have been in negotiation for years and to start again with discussions in a CIL world would not be desirable –although the decision rests with the developer. It is also worth bearing in mind that a lot of applications will have been hanging around for some time pre CIL as developers want a planning ‘decision’ and by that they often mean the resolution to grant subject to a s106. They are not always in a hurry to complete the s106 as they are not intending to go straight on site and the resolution will be enough for them to work on. However an authority’s decision to adopt CIL gives a new imperative to get the s106 sorted.

To compare these limited CIL authorities with the rest of the country is very misleading- it should be noted that areas without CIL are also usually areas without a plan and probably, in a lot of cases, without a five year housing land supply. These areas are magnets for developers seeking consents on unallocated land under the NPPF- the rush has been on to get planning permission on these non-plan led sites – increasing the number of houses granted in some areas.

In terms of getting money in – that only happens in a CIL regime when the development starts and in the cases of authorities with an instalments policy later still. So it is not surprising that these 16 authorities, after only a year, have little to show so far considering: the post adoption lull of consents, then the normal lag to get development on site, the developer focus on areas which are targets for non-plan led housing, and that CIL money at most authorities will only ever be able to contribute a relatively small proportion of the overall infrastructure costs associated with the growth plan.

Savills do make a very good point that CIL does not get collected from the broad range of development originally envisaged and the amount the charging authority are able to collect has been reduced due to the neighbourhood proportion, the changes in exemptions including self-build. Most authorities with large strategic sites appear to be sticking to the use of s106 with zero or low CIL for broader strategic infrastructure – this aids the delivery of key infrastructure on these large sites. Where possible, and the CIL/s106 rules allow, CIL will be best used as match funding or part of a wider funding strategy bring in money from LEPS, City Deals, New homes bonus, business rate retention etc. for strategic or sub regional infrastructure; but all of this takes time to implement. Many charging authorities (District level) have not had the experience of pulling together funding, forward funding, and delivery of major infrastructure. This is a whole new area where they will need to develop the skills and mechanisms to deliver projects themselves or with others. Having available mechanisms for future funding infrastructure and available advice for these authorities will help the delivery of infrastructure projects in these areas.

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 alice.lester@local.gov.uk

New fruit in the planning basket for commercial developers

Government initiatives for nudging investment development and housing towards delivery have thrown up a menu of interesting new options for councils and developers to get their heads (or their mouths) around.

Can you stick with me for 1400 words while I chew these over and ponder a more local solution?

Last week’s Waterfront seminar on the development consents order (DCO) regime for large business and commercial development was helpful for analysing the pros and cons of using the new option from the point of view of the applicant.

But what what about  from the perspective of the local authority and the community?  Can we use this knowledge to ” incentivise” commercial developers to stay within the local authority decision making world?  I am thinking local development orders – but on a bigger more ambitious scale than  those tepid examples created to meet the  rules for Enterprise zone. Something more like what might be needed to deliver the new initiative for housing delivery on brownfield sites?

For those who, like me (until last week), have been aware of the NCO option but hadn’t given much thought to the detail,  I will start with a  bit (very summarised because this is a blog not a briefing) of background about the NCO process.

What developments are affected?

Large business and commercial development in this case do have some restrictions – no dwellings, no retail led schemes, no working of peat, coal oil or gas.  So think offices, tourism, sport,  leisure, conference centres, research and development, warehousing and logistics,  and working of aggregates and minerals.  There are tests as to size (and the thresholds are surprisingly low) but the development has to be shown to have national significance – which may include economic impact, straddling more that one administrative boundary or being connected with an infrastructure project that comes within the NSIP regime.  And if it’s in London – the Mayor has to agree.

What is the regime?

If  accepted for the DCO process (application to the Secretary of State), then a proposal will follow a similar process to the NSIP regime.  The applicant will side step the application to the local authority for planning permission and instead have his/her proposal examined by an “examining authority” set up by the Planning Inspectorate; the final decision by the SoS. The applicant drafts their own Development Consent Order  instead of awaiting a decision letter from the LPA, and also picks up compulsory purchase order rights rather than having to rely on the Local Authority to aid them in the site acquisition (albeit still subject to the tests).  There is also an opportunity to roll up other (but not all) regulatory consents in the same process.

But there is a fixed process, with the accelerated project management plan applying equal pressure to  the applicant, the decision makers and the other stakeholders.

The main stages in the process are: apply to the Secretary of State to come within the scheme, acceptance, pre-application, submission,  pre-examination (including a representation period), examination, recommendation to the Secretary of State, decision.

Worth noting that whilst for the NSIP process the policy context is largely given by the national infrastructure policy statements, for business and commercial developments, the policy context is the NPPF and the Development plan – just as it is for planning applications.

The advantages from the Developer’s perspective?

  • The chance to draft your own development consent order  – meaning that you have the flexibility to compile all aspects in a single view and enough powers to set out a process to, for example, deal with discharging conditions or delivering infrastructure esp transport.
  • The single consent regime (mostly) allows for all interests to be considered /engaged at once.
  • The fixed timetable  – once you are in the system you know you will have a consent in 12 months.
  • Unravelling issues caused by x boundary issues.
  • A regime that is deliberately positive (e.g. alternatives can be applied for and  considered  and some very positive comments about the helpfulness and solution building attitude of the PINS pre-application team).

The disadvantages:

  • It’s relatively expensive – examination fees could be up to £300K if a large team is required ( max planning application fee £250K).
  • Once you’ve applied to enter the DCO system, it looks as if it will be difficult to change to the application process.
  • You don’t get to build relationships with the local authority and you don’t get to test out acceptability with the decision makers in the way that members’ involvement in the planning process can give.
  • The processes at pre-app especially are inflexible – problems if you have overlooked a requirement.
  • Some flexibility is lost by not being able to substitute plans during the consideration.
  • The timetable is fixed – but in some instances getting planning permission  could still be quicker – especially if the site is allocated.

This analysis makes a subtle change to the conventional wisdom of ‘certainty’ and ‘speed’ as the  key to the developers’ wish list.

Looking at the lists of pros and cons, it seems to me that  “time” cuts both ways and that what is desired is simply  to not have the process go on longer than it needs to – transparency in relation to the project management.

Certainty about having most of the relevant consents considered at once  is an understandable advantage.  But there is a expensive potential  trade-off  in not having the chance to get into the mind of the decision makers, meaning that a developer will have to spend an awful lot before he/she gain much sense of certainty.

But what seems to be the biggest attraction for the DCO option is empowerment – being able to influence the form of the consent to develop in such a way that the practical needs of implementation are taken properly into account.  gaining active CPO powers for site assembly.

What are the pros and cons  from the perspective of the local authority and the community?

The cynics will say that the pros of the DCO process include the opportunity to blame someone else for an locally unpopular decision.

But the disadvantage is much costlier for both the disenfranchised council and the community. Its much harder to get the needs of the community threaded into a development if you are simply one of a number of stakeholders.

Then, what can we learn from the NSIP regime to retain that local ability to guide and influence development?

Getting an up to date local plan in place has to be the first stop  (no surprise there).  If one of the attractions of NSIP is that the policy background is clearer by virtue of the national infrastructure policy statements, then having clear up to date policies that conform to the NPPF is a huge step towards greater certainty.

Having council members involved in pre-application discussions gives insight into the decision makers mind.

The LPA taking the role of facilitator to bring other stakeholders into pre-application discussions advances the single discussion if not providing a single consent.

But what about this empowerment of the developer?

A local development order (LDO) could be created through a collaborative approach  involving the applicant; the statutory consultees, the upper and lower tier councils  and the community.

  • All parties would have a contribution to creating a consent framework that would provide reassurance for the community and certainty for the developer.
  • Good project management of the LDO creation would secure timeliness and input appropriate levels of resource to get the job done (probably provided the developer contributes to this).
  • A planning performance agreement (PPA) could provide the mechanisms for discharging conditions or granting subsequent consents as part of a seamless process.

There are now a few strong examples of councils preparing ambitious LDOs.  Look at Thurrock or Vale of White Horse as two of these examples.  Those councils have been prepared to take a much more proactive approach to encourage developments by providing certainty.  The developer is released from the burden of the council wanting to consider every application on its merits from scratch.  The developer is trusted to meet the requirements and get on with delivery. With appropriate liaison, the community can be involved from LDO preparation to scheme implementation.

This is not going to be the cheap option.  But  if developers are prepared to pay for the privilege of wrapping up certainty and the flexibility in a single package this could certainly be a worthwhile addition to the planning basket, along with the DCO option.