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 Peer Review

[This column was originally published in Planning Magazine, March 2007] 

A local authority that has recently participated in the new Planning Peer Review said: ‘We decided it would be a very useful health check and also help us to continue to improve. What was a high performing authority five years ago would not be high performing now if it stood still.’

The Planning Advisory Service is offering a bespoke Planning Peer Review service, carried out by senior planners and Councillors from other councils with no agenda other than to help. I’m inviting planning authorities to closely examine and expose their services to some critical friends.

The review is based on the well-regarded flagship service of the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA). 20? Councils have already used the planning peer review to help them to sustain current good performance and map a route to further improvement. This challenge appeals to authorities that want to take a close look at what works and what doesn’t. It provides planners with a chance to review the real issues at the heart of an effective service: customer focus, working with partners, interacting with the public and delivering outcomes.

We know that the planning sector values the benchmark of an ideal planning service against which they can test their services that PAS has published. The benchmark has been developed and is led by by the sector. It is a useful tool for all planning authorities, not just under performing ones. So how does peer review work? The 1st step is the the self-assessment process. This enables authorities to take a close and honest look at their services, and in itself is a helpful improvement tool. This internal look can often get closer to the roots of success and problems than inspectors or consultants. Following on from the self-assessment, a team of planning professionals and experienced members using the self-assessment document as a starting point interviews staff and members across the authority. The process is transparent with the internal peer review team sharing their progress on the final report, so that nothing comes as a surprise and the internal team has an opportunity to refute anything that they do not agree with. The whole process is similar to a close examination in the mirror, followed by honest feedback from a friend who wants the best outcome for you.

PAS suggests follow on work after the final report is issued and participants join a community of fellow review participants to share information and discuss issues. Further information is available at