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.

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.

 

 

 

Getting It Together

When was the last time you sat in a room with your colleagues in Education, Highways, and Estates? Did you have the Director in the room too?

I helped run a session yesterday in Darlington. It struck me that this is something that all councils should make time to do. We hear too often about a ‘disconnect’ between the assumed priorities for different council services. This is not an issue purely for two-tier councils, although the physical separation of colleagues can make this more difficult.

But ask yourselves, is it better to be firing off emails and letters to colleagues, with a seemingly endless and often circular paper trail, or is it easier to set aside a whole day to discuss the big picture?

Darlington does not strike me as a place where relationships are difficult. The mood in the room was positive throughout. The contributions from all colleagues were insightful and asked just the right sorts of questions. As the discussion moved from the scale of housing need to potential location, all kinds of joining up was happening. There was instant feedback on potential issues, but also solutions, to many sites. You know the sort of conversation which, if in email form, would probably have taken weeks or months to have.

We then had a quick session on the key question that many people miss out on, as they chase processes. “What does success look like?” Whilst there were obviously some rather specific answers relating to each service area, it was clear there were some key themes that came up for everyone. What came out in particular was the theme of ‘making good places’. Place making, or place shaping as a term has fallen out of vogue, but if that’s not what we’re all planning to achieve, what are we planning for?

So if you do have regular get-togethers, then your plan, and the delivery of council services, is going to already be in pretty good shape. If not, what’s stopping you? If you’d like PAS to help facilitate or feed into the organisation of the day, just get in touch.

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..

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.