Ombudsman the bogeyman?

Ombudsman cases: does the risk warrant the reaction?

We’re starting another round of support for councils struggling to process applications quickly enough. A lot of our support helps councils make their processes slicker. One of the most common things to slow a process down is having lots of checks and hand-offs built into it.  These build time and cost into the process and, counter-intuitively, often make it more vulnerable to error (the next person will pick up anything I miss).

Many hand-offs and checks are built-in after an error, omission or failure-to-do-something resulted in an ‘Ombudsman Case’ (usually a few years ago). The checks and hand-offs are normally applied ‘across the board’, with little regard for the type/variety of work in the system and therefore no real understanding of the risk that an ‘Ombudsman Case’ really represents.

How big is the risk?

So, does the time and cost of the checks and hand-offs justify the risk/probability of a case ending up in front of the ombudsman? I did a 5 minute bit of research. You can search the Local Government Ombudsman website so I looked for cases that involved ‘planning applications’ over a 2 year period (April 2014 – April 2016). The number was about 2,400 cases. If you consider that councils process around 600,000 planning applications a year then my Ombudsman cases represent about 0.6% of applications.

A colleague recently worked out that you can save around 2 days of time if you manage to shave 1 minute off of the processing time of every thousand applications you handle. Consider how many minutes (hours, days) are taken up by unnecessary checking, hand-offs, and cases sitting in the backs of queues. So if every council in England saved itself a minute by eliminating a hand-off the sector would buy itself around 3 years’ worth of extra time to deal with planning applications.

Once bitten thrice shy?

I understand why checks are introduced – no one wants the expense and bad publicity of an Ombudsman case. But does the risk really justify the approaches taken by some councils? I know of at least one council that checks that the right consultees have been consulted at least 3 times during the processing of an application.

Now you may say that it is because of the checks and hand-offs that the ombudsman cases are so low. But even if every ombudsman case was a planning case that would still only amount to 20,000 (more crude research) a year – a mere 3% of total planning cases processed.

My research was quick and crude and a bit of idle fun (I am sure someone closer to the subject than me will challenge the numbers), but I hope it will help all of us feel a bit more comfortable about abandoning a lot of the unnecessary checks and hand-offs we’ve managed to strangle our planning processes with.


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.

What does good planning look like ? Six things you have to get right

Last week I missed a speaking engagement with the RTPI SW region. Never done it before – a diary cockup put me at the wrong side of the country blissfully unaware of a room full of people expecting me to talk about “improving your planning service”. This post is what I would have liked to say. Along with the coda “sorry”, obviously.

We In PAS have been banging on about performance and improvement for almost a decade. And quite a lot of the more recent discussion has been at quite a fine level of detail. After all, collectively we have assembled a very detailed dataset on the activities of planning departments so why not use it ?

However, the risk of talking about ‘validation’ and ‘end-to-end times’ is that you don’t ask big enough questions. In fact, if you are not careful you end up near Peter Drucker quote of ““There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all”. Sometimes without noticing it you can set out to solve the wrong problem, or – even worse – not notice that you’re solving a problem of your own making.

We all know that there isn’t one answer to this, and that the search for improvement is not something that is ever just finished. To help us we need a framework.


Students of management theory will recognise Maslow’s hierarchy of need. It is usually represented as a pyramid with different categories of need arranged in ascending rows. It is a useful framework because it helps to explain and link business drivers (like incentivisation, and motivation) with human drivers. It does so in a way that suggests an ordering – you must first allow your employees to meet their physiological needs (like rest and nourishment) and their need for a safe environment (known as hygiene factors) before you try to engage them more holistically with your endeavour.

When I think about organisational improvement I think we can usefully recycle this framework.

planningIn my reinterpretation there are again some basics without which good performance cannot happen, or cannot happen sustainably and predictably. Here is a quick run-through of six key aspects of a good planning service, along with my take on where we are as a sector and as a PAS supporting you:

Resources: It used to drive me nuts that ‘resources’ is one of the most often quoted bleats in the public sector. But it’s true – if you don’t have enough resources (usually human) then the job cannot be achieved in a sustainable way. But how much is enough ? This presentation by Toby (on loan to us from Lovely Lambeth) given at our spring conference suggests that 144 cases per office is an average. And it also gives some idea of the balance between DM, policy and monitoring. But it depends on the job you need to do: if you have contaminated land or a highly contested space you will need to scale accordingly. Note that our new PQF will give you a locally customised picture of your resource requirement, along with a trend allowing you to see how demand is changing.

Support: We don’t often say this, but I think it is essential that a planning service has a trusted and fairly direct relationship with the executive and political leadership of a council. Planning is a tough gig – most decisions have two sides to them and there are going to be bumps along the way. You need to have constancy of purpose and resist panic reactions (unlike poor old anonymous council).

Efficiency: Operational efficiency is difficult in the public sector, and within a monopoly of the public sector even more so. The best councils are never satisfied with the status quo and rethink and reinvent. Lots of our focus in the planning benchmark is here – and many councils have made massive improvements in this area.

Effectiveness: This is where the field starts to thin out. Some people are thinking beyond “doing things right” and getting to “doing the right things”. In my opinion the way to get there is to stop trying to control the whole operation via a DM procedure manual and to empower / trust and listen to your planners. Our work with Wolverhampton and a few others has been a really rewarding new thing this year. It’s obvious but bears making plain: to really achieve in this area you need to get outside the planning department and engage with agents and other customers.

Policy: There is, somewhere, a planning authority which has something approaching a unified approach to DM and policy. This is where I want to go next – where we can think about policy approaches and monitor them in the context of DM activity. Some places already monitor a development pipeline of major sites, but I think I’m talking about a layer closer to reality. Where outcomes beyond “built” or “not built” can be captured, so that when people are wondering what can be done to “fix planning” so that “houses can be built” there is a good, regional evidence base of what development is up to.

We have nothing to share, yet, although we may be about to do some pilot work in this area.

Purpose: What is the highest order thinking about planning ? I’ve called it “purpose” but it goes by many other names. “Place shaping” was in vogue a while ago – whatever it’s called it is outside the planning department and probably more politically driven than anything else. What sort of place are you trying to encourage ? What kind of things can planning do to help ?

We have in the past run workshops for senior councillors on this theme, but it is definitely not easy for us (or indeed anyone else) to do. This sort of thing is instrinsically difficult – although I recommend Marcus Walker’s presentation on a massive development in North Lincs as being one of the most inspiring pieces of place shaping I’ve seen. To be both bold and pragmatic and be able to deliver big change over multiple election cycles – this is local leadership at its best.

Interested ?

In my usual way I’ve probably sounded as if all this is just really difficult. Actually, we have got many tried and tested pieces of support that can help across almost every layer of the planning pyramid. If you want a conversation about how we might put together a menu of support just for you contact us at

And, for those of you that have been with us along the way, out of the archive here are our original (2006) and revised (2009) statements of “what makes a good planning service”. You’ll notice that lots of the scenery and legislation has changed, but not much of substance.

For the RTPI in Taunton no doubt I would have been able to go into this in a bit more detail, as writing things down is more difficult. But this is the core of what I wanted to say – that thinking about improvement delivers results only if you approach it with increasingly higher orders of abstraction. We in PAS have been lucky enough to work with many fantastic practitioners and places to develop the tools we use at the moment. Do they knit everything together perfectly ? No. Do we spend an appropriate amount of time on policy ? No. But bit-by-bit we evolve, learn and improve – up the side of the pyramid to collective self-actualisation. At least, when we don’t cockup our diaries.

Re-thinking Continuous Improvement

HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. A.A. Milne.

I was at an event recently in Birmingham that showcased Wolverhampton, Stoke-On-Trent and Rugby’s planning services. For these councils an improved service is best achieved by 1) changing the way you think about what you do; 2) re-defining your purpose from the customer’s perspective, and 3) changing what you do to achieve the purpose and make continuous improvement part of ‘how you do things’ (not knee-jerk projects every 18 months).

The event lead me to conclude that continuous improvement is not actually possible in most places because of the way we set up and deliver our planning services. I believe we’re unwittingly committing ourselves to mediocrity, the status quo and missed opportunities because we won’t change how we think. I’ve also realised that there’s a large hole in the work I’m doing on a new performance framework. Let me explain what I mean – inspired by the stories of these 3 councils.

We’re products of our environment

Our hosts in Birmingham asked us: why is it that on team away-days our people think outside boxes, build rafts and solve puzzles, but on their return they carry on doing the same old things? Because most of us behave according to the constraints and norms of the structures we work within. We survive by reinforcing assumptions about what is normal and if we feel a bit insecure, we’ll glance sideways at our neighbours and take comfort at seeing them doing the same things. We won’t change our behaviour until the norms and values of the system we operate in change and only then if we’re involved in designing the new order. This is about ‘un-learning’ what we hold to be true, designing something better and then re-learning the better way as ‘normal’.

Why continuous improvement isn’t possible

We normally make improvements to our current ways of working, rather than first asking ourselves whether how we do things is right in the first place. And we measure our success against targets that bear no relation to our purpose. This means that our improvement projects run the risk of simply making us better and faster at the wrong things and the main agent of change (or ‘continuous’ improvement) is whether or not we hit a target.

In this world, improvement projects are primarily triggered by a period of poor performance against a target. It leads to a kind of ‘boom and bust’ approach to improvement. It is not continuous improvement. And, because most improvement projects are focused on change within the current way of working, we see many useful but fairly un-ambitious ‘solutions’ like revised validation lists or standard conditions wordings that tinker around the edges of problems, rather than addressing the root causes. Or we buy an ‘IT solution’.

So what?

Regulars to this site will know that I have been working on a new performance framework for planning. RichardPritchard has most recently contributed on the subject here. I have now realised that all the laudable stuff about moving councils away from targets and measuring better things won’t properly address the continuous improvement problem, unless they are a catalyst for making councils re-think and change the current systems they operate within.

To help my own thinking about what different could look like, I have sketched out a few ‘scenarios’ reflecting some of the ‘norms’ of planning service delivery – the ways of managing and operating that in my mind keep the status quo. Then there are some suggested alternative approaches for those of us ready to think and act differently. The beauty of this stuff is you’ll have heard it all before, several times probably.

Planning Service Scenario 1: ‘We’re no longer driven by 8 and 13 week targets’

Many places have held a staff meeting where it has been agreed that targets are no longer the focus, and that issuing decisions as soon as possible is. In the same places nothing is done to reflect this change of stance in the structures that the staff operate within; NI157 continues to be the de facto performance yardstick, reinforced by the small industry that creates performance reports for management and councillors and obediently sends performance returns (suitably gamed) to Government.

It’s no surprise then that in nearly 4 years of analysing thousands of planning applications, 11th hour decisions and withdrawn applications remains the norm in most places.

The point is, no matter what we tell ourselves, if we continue to use things like NI157 to demonstrate how we’re doing, then our processes and people will always bend towards that goal. When we hit the target we are happy and report positively but do nothing (no need, we’re providing a good service right?), and only when we miss it do we think about making a change.

Putting the lack of an up-to-date plan to one side, this may explain why, despite performing quite well ‘on paper’, our relationships with customers and agents aren’t always that great, and why councillors can be critical because despite our regular reports of ‘top quartile’ performance, they often get it in the neck about planning when they are out on the door.

Thinking differently

Measuring what really happens, for example the real ‘end-to-end’ (e.g. receipt to decision) time of making a decision will show you that many cases that hit the NI157 target actually take a week or two longer in reality. And if you consider the discharging of conditions, then the real end-to-end time can stretch to extra months in some cases. The reasons are numerous, but for starters, around half of applications received by councils are usually invalid. You can begin to see why the perceptions/truth about service delivery are often at odds with your performance reports. The 13 week target is back in vogue because of designation. Obviously this can’t be ignored, but please see this as an opportunity to engage with developers early about their proposals, and start using tools such as planning performance agreements and extensions of time to add value to the process of development, not just to ‘take them out of Government’s stats’. On a related note take a look here at the ever pen-ready RichardPritchard thoughts about understanding how wisely we are spending our negotiation resources.

Measuring end-to-end times tells you what actually happens to an application and is a good start in demonstrating that all may not be as well as your stats indicate. The most disturbing thing you’ll find looking at this measure is not the average decision time, but the ‘range’; why is it that sometimes we can issue a decision on similar applications in 52 days and sometimes it takes 97? It shows you there is inconsistency, but it also shows you that there is potential for change and improvement. But, it is not a solution in itself – unless the data alarms you enough and prompts changes to how you operate, then you are just swapping a target for a measure. Decision times are affected by many different parts of the whole process, take a look at Scenario 2-6 below – this is where we can begin to see some solutions to wildly inconsistent processing times.

Planning Service Scenario 2 – You’ve designed your processes to  maximise efficiency

Applications are picking up and planners’ in-trays are filling. The pressure is on to process applications quickly, so it is important that performance is managed so that no one is slacking. We’re spending a lot of time again agonising over what the optimum number is for ‘caseload-per-officer’.

For efficiency, we’ve carved up the handling process, dividing the labour. Experienced planners don’t have to worry about the ‘small stuff’ at the beginning of the process and can concentrate on the more important work once the application is in the system and ready to work on. Specialists can get on with specialising. The risk of things going wrong is managed by several quality checks along the way by managers and a final one for luck before each decision is issued.

Soon enough, looming piles of work, more in the pipeline and many plates spinning takes its toll. Staff end up being carefully performance-managed into focusing on how quickly they can move cases off their desks, or how long they can avoid doing something. The default methods of communication become the answer-phone and the defensive, jargon-heavy letter with the get-on-with-it-yourself link to ‘the website’.

The myriad of hand-offs in the process mean that no one has a proper perspective of a development which causes delays as officers at each stage ‘catch up’ and argue with what happened before they saw it. The lack of ownership results in mistakes. So we introduce more checks which add more cost and delay, which in turn adds more pressure which leads to more mistakes. You see the pattern…

Staff end up primarily concerned with covering their backs rather than doing good useful work. Our focus on speeding things up has slowed things down and we end up just controlling risks rather than addressing the reasons they exist in the first place.

Thinking differently

Re-arrange the work so that professional planners own and manage development proposals and applications throughout the decision-making process, including any pre-application work and even validation. Instruct them to focus on what’s in front of them and do the best possible job, leaving the head of service to worry about the pipeline. Give them responsibility for making decisions, and operate within a set of principles, something like:

  • Take time at the beginning to understand what the customer is trying to achieve
  • Get the application ‘clean’ (ready to work on) and ‘start now’
  • Validation; work to the legal minimum. Ask: is what’s missing going to stop this? Would a quick visit or phone call sort it out? What else can be progressed while we’re waiting?
  • Focus fully on what’s in front of you; complete a piece of work before staring something else.
  • ‘Pull’ specialist/more experience support in when needed.
  • Performance management will focus on what we’re learning, not how much we do.

Sounds expensive? All that experience at the front end? Talking to customers, phone calls and visits instead of letters, taking time to get it right. It’s a costly business letting planners do their job properly. Compare it to yo-yo-ing correspondence, chasing, waiting, duplication, re-submitting etc. and then judge. And that’s before considering the positive effect on customer service, staff morale and processing times.

Planning service scenario 3: It’s normal to attach Conditions to your Decision Notices

Conditions are increasingly being seen as the enemy. I agree to some extent, but it’s more about when we impose them that is a big problem. A decision notice with conditions isn’t really a decision is it? It is a means of getting a permission out of the door quickly (targets again) but not that helpful to the customer. How many times are conditions a surprise to our applicants?

Thinking differently

Instead of issuing planning permissions, aim to issue ‘Permissions-to-Build’. It will change the way we think about using conditions. Using our experience we get in early – if conditions are likely to feature offer applicants the chance to ‘discharge’ them before the decision is issued. What can happen? They refuse, but at least been offered a choice. They say ‘Yes’ and it possibly adds time into the process prior to the decision – BUT the applicant is happy (it’s their choice and they get a permission to build), and it’s ok because we’re not working to targets any more. No more chasing up conditions, or leaving them un-discharged and leaving neighbours and communities upset.

Planning service scenario 4: Consultees hold us up

The consultation process can be frustrating and cause delays but it’s out of our hands right?

Thinking differently

One council made a study of consultee responses. These were divided into two main categories; those that created more work (65%) and those that helped (35%).  Looking closer at the 65% gave an insight into three things; what it is consultees typically worry about, the situations where these are likely to arise, and where it was the council itself that were typically unclear. Understanding these things allows means we can anticipate and address issues earlier and more proactively. Planners ‘own’ the issues and ‘push’ consultees rather than passively waiting for a response. A little understanding on both sides makes for better relationships.

Planning Service Scenario 5: We provide a Pre-App service 

In many places PreApp is a ‘separate’ process, with its own set of rules and levels of service. That’s fine and useful. However, nationally, inconsistent approaches to charging and quality of advice make many pre-app services less than useful. This does not send out a good message to those developers working nationally or across several boundaries.

Thinking differently

Until you can guarantee some level of quality, are clear about the value you are adding and can explain your pricing structure, then can you really justify charging developers for talking to you? Some places, as an investment in development, don’t charge for their time, have stopped calling these engagements ‘Pre-App’, and  just decided to make themselves more accessible. Good pre-app in these places is simply ‘make your experienced planners easy to talk to’. Controversial.

Planning service scenario 6 – ‘We’re a customer-driven service’  

A quick one to finish. We like to make declarations like: ‘we are a customer-driven service’ and ‘the customer is at the heart of everything we do’. Noble stuff but does it really translate as: ‘Our processes are driven by customers prompting us to action because they keep chasing us for information’?

Thinking differently means experiencing an idea, not copying it

None of what is outlined above is new, nor is it that useful if all we do is tinker with what we already do to incorporate a few of the ideas. Wolverhampton, Stoke and Rugby will tell you that the major part of re-thinking your service is to leave everything you know and hold dear behind and start re-designing things from scratch.  You’ll all be familiar with the approach these councils followed:


It is a nice straight forward approach, and it needs an investment of care and time to do properly and fully. Re-thinking traditional approaches is uncomfortable and some of the ideas created are unpalatable (e.g. putting experienced people at the front of what you do). Room is required – you’ll tie up some of your best people doing this – so a dip in service levels is likely while this work is carried out. And bringing people with you lends itself to ‘rolling-in’ changes gradually, not ‘big bangs’. Everything you learn about your service using this approach comes from ‘experiencing the change’ – this is why the process of how to re-think can be learned but the results and solutions have to be your own.

This is a selection of what our host councils in Birmingham have achieved from re-thinking and changing what they do:

  • End to end 3 x quicker
  • Householder applications 30 days to decision. Adverts: day 1 approval
  • No refusals, appeals, time-driven withdrawn applications; why refuse anything – it should not have got that far
  • Enabling investment – relationships with developers improved
  • Complaints minimal

Building learning into everything we do

I am not arguing for change for change’s sake. I am arguing for setting ourselves up so that improvement becomes part of what we do – it’s built in to how we deliver the service. The important thing about the ‘thinking differently’ ideas above are not the ideas themselves but the fact that the people doing the work – your planners – are involved in creating them and given the freedom to change them when they stop working. The only worthwhile performance framework will be the one that supports this ongoing learning process.

Final thoughts: There’s no more business-as-usual; planning has to get on the front-foot

I really believe that now is the time now to stop tinkering, stop coming up with new strategies to deal with old problems and start the process of re-thinking the old problems away.  I think we also have to recognise that mediocre and even good performance are often the very things masking the real issues, and preventing us ‘continually’ improving.

I can’t help thinking that (apart from maybe out of date plans and no genuine 5 year housing land supplies) a large part of the reason that planning continues to be seen as the ‘thing-that-needs-to-be-fixed’ is due to the fact that our improvement strategies are un-ambitious and focused too narrowly on the wrong things.

What’s the Catalyst?

In my experience, and understandably, most effective and far reaching change projects like these come as part of larger corporate-wide reviews. And/or they need to be instigated by strong managerial leadership combined with some political bravery and backing. A new performance framework can’t do this job on it’s own – it has to be part of a catalyst/stimulus for change. For our (Planning Advisory Service) part, our future support work has to go beyond supporting councils to get better at the status quo and help them acquire the skills and confidence to think differently. It’s a tough one but I’ll keep going with it.

Bump, bump, bump…

I think there may be opportunities for councils that feel they’ve gone as far as they can go; they’ve cut to the bone, they’ve changed all they can and now business is picking up they are left under-resourced. I could accept their point-of-view if I thought the government had gone as far as it can – it clearly hasn’t and resources will continue to shrink. These councils need to think and quick about how they are going to cope.

Let’s not go forward for too long like Edward Bear; too busy bumping to question whether there is a better way. I am up on Merseyside next week – I have a group of councils there that I am working through these ideas with – I will report here soon.

Planning application statistics: death by a thousand slices

PAS (and chums) are doing some work on pre-application advice that should be out for Christmas. I’ve been chipping in with some thoughts on the pricing of services and how councils might evaluate whether their offer works.

To help keep things on track I’ve been trying to keep everyone conscious of the tight timetable and have been using (and probably mis-using) the phrase minimum viable product. So our pre-app suite will ship with an evaluation module that is good enough to get by. However, in building it and testing it with some of our lovely peers and pilot councils I’ve learnt not just that it isn’t perfect yet, but that the whole platform on which we try to evaluate planning is rubbish.

In a nutshell, the way we break the development process into discrete applications (like little slices) means that we have lots of data on how each slice was handled but not on the ultimate outcome or how the process worked as a whole. We are the equivalent of the football manager knowing how many corners each team had in the match, and even how long each one took to play, but not what the result was. Or at least, this is true for those applications that are not one-shot simple processes:

composite evaluation

For now I’m calling it ‘composite evaluation’ because to understand what really happened we need to join some of the slices together. And not unthinkingly. It is not enough to know what pre-application happened and then a full application was received. Did the application reflect the advice ? Or was the site sold inbetween ? Or is this a different business operating from the same UPRN ? All this requires judgement. And a healthy dose of reality as the development process is full of loops and restarts already and even without worrying about outlines and appeals you will routinely see a combination of:

development slices

Annoyingly this judgement and extra level of description comes at a cost. And while some of it can be offset by the work that is already done in various pockets of councils (as part of the AMR, as part of the development team, in regen somewhere) it doesn’t feel like the ICT systems can do this painlessly yet. But imagine the power of being able to tie together what is really happening when you see each slice as part of a greater whole.  I reckon there are advantages in three areas:

Putting development quality in a context

We’re struggling on with our work on quality – part of which requires that we understand the quality of proposals as they first appear and then get again as they get permission. But this a ‘slice’ mentality. Having poked about in downloads of back offices for too long recently (more, perhaps, in another post) the number of amendments and variations to schemes has grown extraordinarily in the last year or two. What matters is not the quality mark at the point of decision but whether (or not) the planning department was able to negotiate upward on schemes that got built that way. I suspect that many DM managers would get trembly lip if they knew how many schemes either didn’t proceed or had their negotiations varied away at some later date.

In a recent study for a single planning authority I looked at sites with more than 5 planning records. There were 321 full applications, with 66 variations to conditions and 97 other amendments. What was approved was (in a sizeable minority of cases) either not built or not built out as approved.

Saving money (and providing a good service)

So, in order to understand whether you are spending your negotiation resources wisely you have to know how well things are followed through. It’s bit like arguing with a year 8 child about the virtues of wearing a coat to school in winter. They might be wearing it as they walk out the door, but as soon as they are round the corner it’s gone. Best to understand which battles to fight and which to leave.

Moreover when you look at how many applications are part of the same thing you can ultimately save time by ensuring they go to the same planner. This reduces hand-offs and the number of people that have to get their head round a scheme. We also have clear feedback from applicants that they hate the arbitrary way case officers come and go with their many different opinions. I know it can be tricky for some senior planners who feel their new work is sometimes compromised by repeated minor niggles from previous schemes but they will be quicker and more consistent.

Understanding your work better

This corralling of the development process into a coherent whole would have a profound influence on how well planning authorities could defend themselves from the allegations that they use conditions as a license to print money (ha !) and that (as seems likely) pre-commencement conditions are so evil they should be legislated against. 

There are also several slightly geeky problems that this organising principle solves to do with the slightly arbitrary nomenclature and classifications (some of which are to do with the national indicator and are not talked about in public). It changes our understanding of the work from “a bunch of applications, some of which are complex and many of which are not” to “a load of developments, some of which are ready to implement and others which are not”. Don’t underestimate the change of mindset required to move from “how can I say ‘yes’ to this application ?” to “what needs to happen to get this built ?”.

And, for the first time, we can talk about how many schemes began life as contrary to policy but got built thanks to collaboration and constructive relationships.

Closing thought

Our pre-application ‘thing’ (we’re not very good at marketing) will ship with something much less dramatic in it. And it will work fine for a while. But this is really the way to do it and it is so basic, boring and obvious I’m baffled that it hasn’t been done years ago. It’s not natural territory for PAS but if I get a sense that some ring-mastery is required perhaps we will do our bit.

And yes, I know many good councils already do some of this some of the time. This is not instead of taking your planning committee to see how the schemes really turn out. It’s about making this part of “how we do things” in planning departments so we can understand, articulate and get better at managing developments.

New ways of resourcing planning enforcement

Dear Virgin media,

I understand you run a business that involves putting television pictures and what-not down cables in the ground. I have a small proposition for you.

Around our way we have lots of unauthorised satellite dishes. I counted 4 on the block of flats opposite me this morning. And that’s just on the two faces of it I can see.

unauthorised dishes

I wondered whether you might like to give us a small amount of money – enough to pay for a planning enforcement officer. We would work around each postcode making sure that these satellite dishes went through the proper process. We’d be happy to deliver one of your leaflets at the same time as our notice and would almost certainly generate more customers for you. And, at the same time, we’d also do some monitoring and have a poke about on some other non-communication issues that we care about. You’d accept that your money paid for a bit of this in return for a bunch of long-term customers.

We’d share with you what we were up to, and if in the end you weren’t getting enough business out of it to be worthwhile then fair enough. We’re under some pressure to think of new ways of funding public services and this seemed worth a shot. I’ve got similar letters to write to clear channel, Roche and some other guys.

Do let me know whether this is something you might consider.


Team Leader (Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement)


Designation (oh, designation) that’s not what you need

In the olden days we had a standards regime. Back when I first joined local government it amounted to a “name and shame” process where the carrot was a financial reward (oh, those heady days of PDG) and the stick was to be on a list somewhere. The advice and support for a standards authority was mostly procedural. It focussed on streamlining process, thinking ahead on s106, minimising committee involvement and pruning the procedures manual.

It would be a mistake to treat designation as a warmed-up version of the standards regime. It is altogether more serious.


Roy Castle plays “Designation”

We’re starting to have the conversations with councils who may have been designated, and I’m finding it useful to anchor those conversations to three themes: Continue reading

Agent Accreditation is wrong – discuss

Anyone who has ever seen me deliver presentations will be unsurprised to learn that I prepare what I think quite carefully, but not so much how I’m going to say it. At our opening PIPE event I mentioned (in an unplanned aside) that I thought agent accreditation was wrong. Several people challenged me on this, so I offer my opinion in two parts. Today I’ll try to set out why these accreditation schemes are fundamentally wrong. Shortly I’ll share some thoughts on what might be a better way.

Even more than usual I’m grateful to colleagues in local govt, several of whom have shared their thoughts and inside knowledge on agent accreditation schemes.

How do agent accreditation schemes work ?

Briefly, the premise is that there are good agents and bad agents. Good agents can submit good applications that are ready to proceed, bad agents submit sloppy applications that require rework before they can go on to consultation.

Good agents  submit a certain number of flawless applications to a particular authority – usually 3. Following this test, they receive a “gong” – they become an official accredited agent. Presumably their name is listed somewhere on the council website, and they can use this gong as evidence of some kind of competence in their own promotional material. Because they are now an accredited agent, any subsequent applications they submit bypass the initial validation process and go straight to a planner – reducing cost and time.

So what’s the problem with agent accreditation schemes ? Continue reading

New Blog Series – Secret Secondment (Part 1 of 6)

Secret Secondment

There will be a time, maybe not be too far away, where it becomes clear that to deliver a cost-effective service, you may have to look beyond your own resources, and you will want to move quickly.

Follow me on secondment, as I discover the secret of how to get two councils to merge their planning services. Over the coming months I’ll share my first-hand experiences getting to the heart of the issues, difficult decisions, political and managerial challenges, and share tips on how best to navigate a way through and around them.

Preparing the ground

It’s difficult to embark on a project like this from a standing start. So, to begin this series, I discuss what I call the ‘change before the change’ – the circumstances that Continue reading

Planning, RSS and land banking

I was at PIPA last weekend – the RTPI “Politicians in Planning” network. It was my third or fourth annual conference, and as usual it was great fun. We usually try to run a couple of sessions – this year we covered the 5-year land supply issue and whether (and how) the role of councillors has been changing.

I learnt some while ago that preparing for these sessions has got to be approached with a certain amount of latitude, as it is impossible to bundle up 30 or 40 councillors from across the land and expect any sort of  agenda or timetable to run as expected.

If I’m honest, some of what you hear is depressing. There is a lack of trust, and several councillors will try to pick my brains to see whether they’ve been lied to by their officers. But there is also a willingness to ask the really tough questions. There were two this year that I thought were worth drawing out a little – you’ll notice that neither of them has got anything to do with the sessions we ran.

When will government abolish the RSS ? Continue reading