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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interested ?

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

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

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


Planning application statistics: death by a thousand slices

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

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

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

composite evaluation

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

development slices

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

Putting development quality in a context

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

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

Saving money (and providing a good service)

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

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

Understanding your work better

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

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

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

Closing thought

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

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

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

Beyond NI157

You’ll probably know that NI157 (our national performance indicator for planning) may be changed. I was invited along for the final review – learning and listening to the pilots to assess what new measures would make sense to implement. I’m here to tell the whole room of practitioners they got it entirely, completely, utterly wrong. Sector led ? You fools – the cage is unlocked and you won’t fly free!
Fly you fools!
Continue reading

The Killian & Pretty review : it’s the system isn’t it ?

Everyone involved in planning will have been ecstatic when the news of another review of the planning system was announced a while ago. Known after its two leads, the Killian & Pretty review is a “call for solutions” – I’m not sure whether that is refreshing or slightly scary in a “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” kind of way. PAS has put forward a measured, thoughtful and balanced submission. This, then, is my slanted, partial and faintly exasperated set of personal opinions. Continue reading


[This article was originally published in Planning Magazine, September 2007]

The world of local government is shifting on its axis and not just as a result of the sheer weight of paper coming out of central government. The emerging improvement culture is causing a substantial shift of its own.

Last year’s Local Government White Paper set out the foundations and direction for this new culture through a move to the outcome-focused Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) which moves away from the CPA inspection regime towards sector-led improvement. This means local government taking responsibility for identifying improvement needs and acting upon them. This is a significant sea change for local government, one that has substantial implications for planners. In this world, the role of peer review and peer support is central.

In the move from CPA to CAA, the outcomes to be achieved will be set out in the Local Area Agreement (LAA). The government’s concern about continued performance is reflected in the new National Indicator, NI157, which looks remarkably like BV109. Notwithstanding this, we need to ensure that LAA outcome targets include elements that give planners and the planning service the opportunity to demonstrate how they create real change in communities. If this can be achieved it will help put planning centre stage within central and local government’s delivery framework.

But are planning services ready to embrace this opportunity? How well do you know your service? Is it fit for purpose? And, could you identify your own areas for improvement and change without an inspector telling you?

Do you know where to access help to make change? Do you think you can embrace the sector-led challenge for service improvement? There is no choice although there is an opportunity for planning services to lead the way. If you are struggling to understand how to make this real have a look at the PAS self assessment benchmark tool on our website.

To find out more about how the services offered by PAS can help, visit http://www.pas.gov.uk