Do you work in a local planning authority? We need your help……please

Peers are such an important part of the work that we do. There is nothing quite like hearing from someone who has been in your position and experienced similar things. There is something quite comforting about knowing that you’re not on your own and that they have been there and come out the other side smiling. A peer visiting your Council can also become a part of your network or become a friend to lean on as you both move through your career.  

This isn’t to say that all Councils are the same, far from it. There are, however, many shared experiences and this provides our network of peers with some unique opportunities to apply their knowledge to.  Peers benefit enormously from the work that they do, and they tell us that they learn a lot from the Councils they work with. They then take this learning back to their Council where their own service improvement work continues. It should go without saying but this also helps peers to develop personally. This applies equally to Councillors and officers in a Council.

Our peers can work on Planning Peer Challenges, where a group of officers and Councillors go into a Council to provide an external perspective on their planning service, or they can work on more discreet areas giving advice on a particular issue or undertaking reviews of the different elements of a planning service such as the planning committee. The work is varied and provides as much benefit to the peer as it does to the host authority. This is the joy of sector led improvement.

Peers should have relevant and comparable experience to the authority they are supporting. Councils look for these qualities when they are choosing which peers to invite in. They should also be able to understand the demography and cultures of the communities that Councils serve. This helps to build and keep trust throughout the work. It is also more likely that the Council can get wider buy-in to the recommendations and any action plan that is created to make the improvements.

We have a great group of peers and whilst we try to use them sparingly, they do have day jobs after all, we find ourselves calling on the same people time and time again. On the upside, this means that we have a very experienced peer pool but, on the downside, it creates a capacity problem and means that we are not creating a diverse pool with opportunities for everyone. This is something that the PAS team wish to address.

We started a conversation with Helen Fadipe, Sara Dilmamode and Gavin Chinniah of the BAME Planning Network. This wasn’t just about our Peer network, but it became clear from our early conversations that this was the place to start. Helen explained to us that BAME planners working in local planning authorities do not have the same access to senior positions and would, under our current criteria, be prevented from being peers. Conversely, being a peer gives you the range of experiences that can help you to get those more senior positions.

We have been working over the summer to change our criteria so that it is more inclusive, basing our requirements around experiences rather than seniority. We hope that by doing this we can encourage a wider range of people to come forward and apply to be a PAS peer. We have also broadened the scope of the experiences that we require, recognising that it’s not only planners that do planning.

As we start to enter a period of change within the planning sector, we are starting to see an increase in the demand for peer challenges, with Councils using the peers to help them respond to changes and challenges. It’s a really interesting time to be a planning peer.


Virtually Better Planning Committees

“Planning committee is the council’s ‘shop window’ – it is one of the rare opportunities the public get to see a council up-close, how it conducts itself, how it represents citizens and how it makes decisions. Let’s enhance that not lose it.”

COVID-19 has forced all of us into new ways of working (many of which we should have adopted years ago), and has had a quickening affect on bringing forward change and ingenuity. Improvement should also be part of the equation – I quite like this from Harvard Business School: leading and managing during a crisis – essentially the difference between managing the urgent without losing site of what’s important and what’s next.

I have been thinking along similar lines about planning committees as PAS prepares to release its ‘guide to setting up virtual committees’. As we respond to the immediate challenge of ensuring committees can operate and decision making can happen, let’s also:

  • Make things better – by reviewing/challenging some of our present thinking and ways of doing things;
  • Not make thing worse – in our rush to keep the wheels turning, let’s take care that our ‘solution’ doesn’t create a new barrier to public participation.

While we might change delegation arrangements in the short-term to ‘lighten the load’ of committee and create more streamlined and focused groups of members, we may find that shining the spotlight on established protocols and set-ups reveals a better way of operating into the future.

In the virtual world it’ll be even more important to do what good (but too few) committees already do to engage the public at committee – they explain to all present what is about to happen, who’s who, who does what, the rules on who can take part & how; how and when a decision is reached; and try to make the whole thing make sense and easy to follow. Ignoring these housekeeping fundamentals leaves observers feeling alienated and confused – it might be appropriate in the new world to allow or even promote some kind of broader engagement via social media.

So, if you are currently poor (or ignore) these fundamentals, this is your opportunity to dust things down and create a bit of shine in both the new virtual world and in the ‘old’ world (in whatever form that returns). As a checklist for a quick review I have put together a few general improvement questions that councils can challenge themselves with alongside establishing their virtual set up:

  • Are we clear about the role of planning committee – what are we here to do & what is our purpose – does this need to change in the short term?
  • How well do we explain to the public who’s who, what we do, how decisions are arrived at, and what’s allowed/not allowed?
  • Would it be clear to someone arriving at (or logging-in) to our committee what is happening or who is in charge?
  • Are the number/type of cases that committee see appropriate?
  • Do our delegation and call-in protocols support or undermine the purpose of committee?
  • Are we of an optimum size (e.g. is a committee with 8 members right? Is a committee of 18 members right? Is a committee where every councillor is a member right?).
  • Do we need more than one committee e.g. strategic/area?

Yes let’s use this period to gear up to deliver a workable solution to COVID-19 at pace, and yes let’s use the opportunity to use technology to make everyone’s lives easier, but let’s not forget that many of our planning committees could do with a dust-down. Planning committee is the council’s ‘shop window’ – it is one of the rare opportunities for the public to see a council ‘face-to-face’, how it conducts itself, how transparent it is, how grown up it is, how it represents citizens and how it makes decisions.

Let’s enhance that and not lose it. Let’s not give anyone an excuse to disengage with the planning process.

Privatising Planning

Many people have got quite cross about the “alternative providers” bit of the Housing and Planning Bill. We’ve been doing some work getting some solid, sensible council people in the same room as  DCLG and getting some of the issues out in the open. Having heard the idea kicked around from several angles I offer here a positive, step-by-step guide to making this thing work. Kind of like a thought experiment. A bit like when you ask a vegetarian “But if you had to eat a bit of an animal, would you eat a sausage or a lamp chop ?”.

But before we start, lets set the scene. I’ve heard some people talk about this proposal as if it is like the monopoly previously held by the Royal Mail being opened up to competition. This is not a helpful analogy, because the customer in that situation is the person receiving a parcel, and only them. I think a better analogy is the liberalisation of the places where people can get married. Previously only religious places and registry offices. Now, loads of different kinds of places have a registration to carry out marriages. The bride & groom are the customer, but the State is also a participant and maintains an interest in the service being done correctly (and under cover).

Who might alternative providers be ?

Alternative providers (APs) would have to be *nuts* to try and do everything a council does. Think of the preparation that would be required to be able to offer the sheer range of applications that a council must deal with. The cost of gearing up for the rare things just makes no sense. For this to work, we have to observe Pareto and allow for AP’s to organise for doing the common things well and cheaply.

This approach would also suit SMEs and their insurers. I might specialise in shop-fronts. I have a pretty good idea of how and where to advertise for customers, and because it’s all I do I *know* how the shop-front system works. You might specialise in all applications in the Kensal Rise conservation area. Again, you know the history and the bits of the place that really matter and where there is some room for a bit of wiggle. As well as some of the characters from KRRA. And so it goes on. Her thing is trees – his is extensions. And yes, many of the people delivering these services are going to be the people currently sitting in council planning departments.

Of course, allowing APs to stake out a specialism (and drive costs down) comes at a price. Most obviously APs will not want to offer a heritage service without heritage applications attracting a fair fee. But just as plainly Councils won’t want to be left with the horrid applications that cannot be made to work financially. Each application needs a fair fee (set by the council) and if people can undercut it then good luck to them. And if the undercutting is so large that lots of work starts to disappear then councils will need to revise their fees down or accept its permanent loss.

How will it work in practice ?

For people who aren’t up close with the application process there is a hope that somehow the “processing” and “decision” bits of the whole divide neatly into chunks which can seamlessly be navigated. I’m afraid not.

It gets a bit deep for a blog post, so I’ll just lay down the three problems that need to be part of the approach. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but each requires quite a big change to the status quo.

  • Consultation: Councillors particularly want to know what is going on and will not want to check two (or three, or four) places to see which applications are on the weekly list. The risk of JR when there are multiple places things may (or may not) have been publicised goes up exponentially. Somehow all the cases being consulted by providers A, B and C need to be in the same place. The provider should be invisible to consultees – it requires a single website (in the cloud) to knit it together.
  • Policy: Planning decisions are strongly driven by policy.  Hitherto each planning policy team has had a captive audience in the DM colleagues, which is one reason why plans are such enormous and arcane things. But what if you worked in six boroughs ? How would you navigate and apply each council’s policy ? What’s stopping each borough setting out their approach in a common framework and spatially so it was immediately obvious how policies ‘bit’ on every site in the six boroughs? The idea is quite liberating and so far removed from current practice that it sounds quite bonkers.
  • Quality: Managing for decision-making quality is at present a management process. As a standard part of staff supervision the quality of work  is coached and managed upwards, and ultimately there is a trust relationship between report-writer and decision-maker. How would a decision-maker react if their team’s reports came to them totally cold ? And anonymised so she couldn’t tell who had created which report ? In that situation you would want to have some kind of spot-check and sanction regime to manage quality, as well (perhaps) for APs to signal when something might be borderline or to ask for help. Like staff do.

And yes, insurance is part of the answer. But it can’t be all of it.

Why should anyone bother ?

If these barriers can be overcome what might happen if this thing takes off ? The APs, of course, will want to make a small profit on the work and they might be able to package the service along with others (building control) to form a nice customer-friendly little unit.

But more broadly there are other possible good outcomes from this

  • Councils can compete for talent. Allowing market forces cuts both ways, and fees can be set at a level that allows councils to pay market rates for good people.
  • Service offers can be made more flexible. The national system is a straight-jacket. Innovators in councils would *love* to be able to change the system to make it a better fit to local needs. Most applicants are not cost sensitive, but quality sensitive. Fewer conditions ? Quicker turnarounds ?
  • Focus. Why should councils care that much what householders are doing to their kitchens ? Place-making – that is the job that should exercise councils



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

This is Quality (Part 3). A truly local quality indicator

 Part 1 of this series introduced the Planning Quality Framework – the antidote to target based performance management. Part 2 explained how we’d made the framework ‘modular’ and much easier to engage with.

In Part 3 I’ll take you through what the framework actually is, explain a bit more about each module, how it all fits together and show you some of the newer outputs we’re developing.

How the Framework ‘works’



The framework brings 3 sets of data together in one place:

1) Facts: What does the data from our management system tell us?

2) Opinions: What do customers say and think about us?

The greatest compliment ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. Henry David Thoreau

3) Development quality: How good are proposals and what eventually gets built?

It turns these 3 sets of data into…


A rounded (i.e. not just speed) set of measures set out in:

• Quarterly performance reports
• Annual performance report
• Bespoke localised reports (we’ll send you a database so you can create your own bespoke, local reports).


The reports help you focus on what’s important, to re-think what you do, and look for opportunities for…

Service Improvement

• Good practice
• Improvement support
• Peer-to-peer learning.

It’s Sector-led

The content of the framework has been developed with the help of the sector. To date, approximately 20 councils have piloted the first part (data). We are currently, with their help, putting the finishing touches on the reports, benchmarked against others.

We are currently testing the surveys with the help of Hastings Borough Council. The surveys capture the views and feedback of a variety of ‘customers’ of the planning service including applicants/agents, neighbours, councillors and staff.


The quality aspect is in two parts. The first is a review of the quality of the planning service itself – managers will review and score the council’s role (e.g. ‘did we negotiate well?’), processing specific applications. The second is a review of quality of the planning decisions on Major developments using a framework used by Camden and based on CABE’s Building for Life criteria.

This data schematic explains how the different data sets fit together:


We’ve only just begun

The “quality” parts of the framework will take time to filter through as we rely on councils to spend time collecting evidence about developments. This will also grow into something more valuable as we develop the framework to go beyond analysing transactions and get to thinking about whole developments. We can’t ignore costs forever either and may suggest a time-sheeting exercise every 2 or 3 years.

Reports – some new ways of looking at ourselves

The Framework reports will provide a rounded picture of what is happening in the service (I’ll blog here with more detail in August). The reports will be tailored for different audiences, and we are experimenting with some new views – here are a few examples:

(i) Development Investment – helping councils understand the investment value tied up in the applications they are processing at any one time:


The ‘Investment estimate’ is based on the build costs for different types of development – these are just PAS estimates for now, so are illustrative only. In this example, the trend is that development investment is going down, but even at its lowest point, this planning department is managing development applications that represent a £20 million investment in this place. Powerful stuff.

(ii) FTE Estimate over Time – how well matched are resources to work volumes?


The ‘FTE estimate’ plot is based on PAS 2012 Benchmark data. Marrying this data together with application volumes, fee income trends and the development investment data, adds a little ‘piquancy’ to many of the resourcing decisions facing the service. It may highlight a number of opportunities to re-focus resources.

(iii) The concept of ‘non-value’ work

A lot of the ‘applications’ in your management system aren’t. Many are what we have re-named “follow-ups” – things like discharge of conditions, and there are certifications and prior approvals. Conditions represent additional work and their inappropriate use is a continuing bug-bear of many customers. We should pay more attention to how we use conditions and on what types of development – the Quality Framework reports will allow you to do so:


The above picture is for Householder applications. I hope that Council ‘I’ is having problems with its data rather than over half of its householder applications having conditions attached.

We’re launching in September –

View the PQF webpage for more background info about the project and do sign up for one of our launch events in Birmingham, London, Manchester and Exeter in September 2014. See our events page for details.

And there’s more…

This is part three of four blogs about the PQF – the next blog will be published in August – but if you have any comments in the meanwhile, leave a comment here.

This is Quality (Part Two)

Planning Quality Framework: flexible…agile…worthwhile

In my previous blog, I introduced the Planning Quality Framework – the antidote to target-based performance management and a neat path to true continuous improvement. Since then I have had a number of people ask how the Quality Framework differs from our previous benchmark and, please could we make it a bit simpler?

Well we have, in a number of ways. It’s modular, so you can choose how much you do. It’s not timetabled so you can choose when you do it. It’s low-hassle – the emphasis has moved away from cost so there’s no need to train whole departments to time-record and re-classify work, or learn the language that accountants speak in.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts… (Aristotle)

Each module is valuable in it’s own right but is not the whole story. The real value comes when you draw all three together – how many expensive process reviews focus solely on speeding things up but fail to notice that the service says ‘yes’ more often than its peers, creates less waste and has happier customers? The quality framework reports will show a much more rounded story of what’s happening and which way the service is heading.

Like most things in life, the more you put in, the more you get out. You don’t have to do everything at once or follow a timetable, but the more you do the better the value. Any timetabling PAS suggests will be so that we can provide support but it’s not compulsory. It’s a bit like the self-service tills at the supermarket – you can get on and away quickly but if you need someone to sort that ‘unidentified item in the bagging area’ or confirm your age, then you may have to wait. For example, we may suggest a customer survey in November but you already do one every June – fine, we’ll slot your results in when they’re ready.

How the Planning Quality Framework is different from the PAS Benchmark: 

PAS Benchmark          Quality Framework
You have to do it all It’s got 3 modules – the more you do; the better the value
All together, once per year, and if you miss the boat – tough You just begin, when you’re ready.
A snapshot in time Ongoing, quarterly and annual reporting
Based on understanding and improvement Based on understanding and improvement
Industrial strength accounting, time-sheeting Low hassle, no time sheeting
Internal management tool Internal management tool, external badge of quality

We launch in September – want more info?

View the PQF webpage and sign up for our launch events in Birmingham, London, Manchester and Exeter in September 2014. See our events page for details.

And there’s more…

As the title suggests, this is part two/three/four. Other blogs on this topic will published over the next few weeks, but don’t wait for those – leave a comment here.

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.

The comfort zone for improvement

Our most recent round of benchmarking has focused on giving councils the ability to set planning fees.  Incidentally, it’s also one of the largest projects the sector has ever undertaken with 220 councils and some 9,000 planners taking part. Well done local government!

If you have been to any of our benchmarking events or been present when two or more councils have gathered in the name of benchmarking, you will have heard me say “fee setting is the easy bit; wait until you’re customers start questioning the value they get for that fee”.

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Lessons so far – Managing Excellent Planning Services (MEPS)

MEPS is 10 months old now and we have 7 benchmarking groups made up of 30 authorities. As expected, this project gets more and more interesting as we add more sets of data into it. Its early days – I am not quite ready to share individual authorities’ improvement stories, but I can start sharing what we are learning about the planning beast more generally. Some of it confirms things we know, some makes us question some of the ‘received wisdom’ about what improves planning services, and other bits are frankly, leaving us scratching our heads… Continue reading