Can we just start again?

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

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


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There are pages and pages about documents already adopted and usually lots of legal gumph about prescribed periods and out of date regulation numbers.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.

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.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

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

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

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

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

Why is there a problem?

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

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

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

Oooh yes, let’s do ‘transformation’

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

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

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

What does a good problem look like ?

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

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

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

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

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


Crash, Bang, Wallop… is it viable?

Crash, Bang, Wallop- is it viable ? – The last 8 years…

I started with PAS in 2008 and there was the ‘Crash’ – I could mean the first time I went to a PAS event when a waitress threw a pot of coffee at me and my colleague Phillipa followed it up with a jug of iced water, but I don’t. ‘The Crash’ – was definitely the economic one and it has had a fundamental impact on local authorities and planning over these last 8 years. Development stalled and development viability took centre stage with both developers and LPAs. In seeking to get development going developers and house builders used viability appraisals to demonstrate the need to reduce development contributions and affordable housing. It was and is, all about delivery.

Although viability assessments were around before 2008 they were less common, developers just wanted to get on and develop, house builders to build. In a rising market – it cost more to argue about it -they paid up and got on with it.

Following the crash, there were increasing arguments over the ability of developments to pay for infrastructure and affordable housing so the industry and monster that we know as ‘viability’ flourished. The growth of the viability industry was kicked off by the Blyth Valley decision (2008) and followed up by Wakefield.  As development viability started to grow in importance in both plan making and development control (or Management) – there were questions about whether there was enough understanding in planning about viability. This led to the report by Roger Tym and Partners- ‘Training in Development Economics’ (sponsored by a wide range of industry organisations including PAS). This lead to the first PAS training course on viability with Roger Tym and Partners (now PBA) and continued with AECOM/ HDH planning (2013-16). Having run these courses for six years -approximately 1000 delegates -it is apparent that there is always demand because it is a central to planning and delivering development. The importance of viability to the delivery of development was the driver behind the Harman report (Viability Testing Local Plans) which was being worked on at the same time as the NPPF which cemented the importance of viability as a tool in planning.

But is our approach to viability and the deliverability of development effective?

I do think it is vital for planners to understand development economics, viability and the development industry context. I also think it is equally important for the surveyors, viability consultants and development industry to understand planning, their behaviour on the wider built environment and the impact of the developments they are promoting on communities. I have become increasing frustrated over the years:

  • That the development industry do not understand that viability is not a game or a mathematical exercise but has a fundamental impact on communities and the ability of the development industry to build. They have a responsibility to look beyond the spreadsheet.
  • With the RICS’s approach to viability, releasing their ‘Financial Viability in Planning’ guidance just after Harman and conflicting with it, focusing on market value which is inappropriate particularly for plan making. Also in practice practitioners taking a market value comparative approach to viability with sites that aren’t comparable and not take into account the current policy environment contrary to RICS guidance;and
  • The Government, up until a couple of months ago, continuing to allow recessionary measures such as the s106 appeal process for affordable housing all based on the ‘mathematical certainty’ of viability appraisals.

All this has led to Communities becoming increasingly resistant to new development as they are fed up with poor quality developments that do not provide the infrastructure to support it or the affordable housing to support the community. They do not make places that the community are happy to accept. Why are new developments rejected by communities?- because according to the  appraisal model  the planning policies that would meet the needs of the development and local community are not  ‘viable’; CIL is not ‘viable’ and development proposals even when assessed against existing policy are not ‘viable’ according to the viability appraisal – the model says NO. It appears that such modelling has taken on mathematical certainty and has a scientific aura that is not there. Our approach to viability appraisal does not appear to be effective in the delivery of growth.

Viability modelling is a tool – to give an indication – to aid decision making- not the answer in itself. We need to take a step back from the modelling and look at the whole picture.

As a nation we are now concerned about the housing shortage – it has taken a while I have written several blogs on that subject over the years but it has now reached the front page of the newspapers. In 2012 I asked

“..When are we going to see on telly, read in the tabloids and hear our leaders and those in positions of power saying:“We have a very serious national housing shortage that is thwarting economic growth and harming the lives of millions of people. We think that a huge house building programme should be supported by all – this is a national priority”..

So are we satisfied with the approach we are taking to viability appraisals and their impact on the delivery of housing?  Is it the models fault? – No but the interpretation of the results by consultants, LPAs and Inspectors is at fault.  The models need to be interrogated, there needs to be greater understanding and challenge of the inputs that go into the modelling and they need to look out the window.

The models need to be transparent. Latterly there has been a push for this which should be supported by all parties to win back trust. Viability appraisals should be to be available to the public – that will drive transparency. I have heard the cry (and may even have indulged in it myself at some point) the public won’t understand it – remember the public are us- we are the community.

When the model says no and building is still going on we need to understand, when s106 was pulling in much higher contributions that the model says CIL can we need to question, when the model says offices are viable and no one has built any in the last 3 years you have to question. It is a tool and it is not the answer.

What is the answer – understand the context, understand the inputs into the model and how small variations can make big differences, understand that all developers do not exist in the same circumstances and therefore the models we have are only a proxy to give us a picture not THE picture. As a country we need to address the issue of what is a competitive return for land, the land monopoly in many area and the monopoly of the house builders when it is not in their interest to build more houses and flood the market with their product. So if the monster viability is to have some respect we need to change our attitude to the models and the appraisals- we have to appreciate its limitations (as well as its usefulness).

I started with a crash – I hope I don’t go out on another crash or is this the wallop. At this momentous time- leaving the EU it is certain the questions of viability will remain- it should be the approach and culture that surrounds  viability assessments that will be important going forward.

Funding the planning system

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

What does “fee flexibility” mean ?

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

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

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

cost recovery

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

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

Funding the planning system

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

norwich proposition

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

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

Next steps

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


Performance regime for the local plan

Councils have been subject to a performance regime for determining planning applications for a couple of years now. It was only ‘major’ applications in 13 weeks, this year it is going to be extended to non-major applications in 8 weeks. It is rare now to find development management people who don’t understand the need to “play the game” to ensure they don’t get caught out. But it seems to me that policy people are not paying sufficient attention to the concept of performance management that is going to be applied to the local plan later this year.

The details were in the consultation document published in February. The fact that the secretary of state will intervene in situations where councils do not have a plan did get some headlines, although the number of councils caught by this measure is quite small.

Of more interest are the criteria for triggering an intervention on page 42. It’s quite clear that the government is going to use the Council’s Local Development Scheme (LDS) as a baseline from which to assess whether a council is making progress with its plan.

I spend more time than most ferreting around on council websites, looking for various things including the council’s LDS. I find them almost universally out of date, with many councils forgetting to update them as timetables slip. Since the requirement to submit the LDS to government has lapsed, the discipline to keep them accurate has gone. Too many other things to do.

So, we have a clear intention from government to introduce a league table and accompanying penalties that is based on a timetable in a document that most councils are failing to make properly. And, for those councils that are sighted on this issue, some people are planning to revise the LDS to give themselves milestones that are waaaaaaaay out in the future.

This is nuts.

Just as DM people have had to accept the reality of a performance management system on planning applications, policy people need to do the same. Get yourself to one of our LDS events because we’ve done some of the work for you. And then, accept a new pressure and spotlight on the plan production timetable. Which, given the amount of resource it requires, is no bad thing.