Can planners help to save our town centres?

Findings and reflections from a workshop on town centre regeneration at the PAS conference for Heads of Planning and Rising Stars, Wolverhampton July 20221

My home town – the new Glass Works and public square, Barnsley

“Town centres are close to my heart” said one conference delegate as we made our way to the town centre regeneration workshop in Wolverhampton earlier this month. I share her sentiments, especially for my own town centre in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Sometimes a victim of ridicule in the past, and with previous plans beset by problems and delays, the regeneration of Barnsley town centre is never the less emerging as a great success. Just this spring, Barnsley was amongst the top 10 places for both footfall and spend recovery following the removal of Covid restrictions, and you only have to walk around the place to see the new businesses and numbers of people. I think Barnsley and many similar town centres have a good story to tell, as well as some real opportunities in the future.

With these thoughts in mind I joined over 40 other planners, representing a range of different authorities and types of town centre, at the PAS conference to discuss recent trends and the role of planning in the future.

Town centres and high streets have experienced many changes and challenges over recent years, but few as significant as the Covid-19 pandemic with official lockdowns, radical changes in consumer spending and moves to flexible (home-based) working for many people. This workshop was a chance to take a step back and think about the issues and opportunities now facing our town centres. In particular, we explored three questions:

  • What has been happening in our town centres over recent years?
  • What does this mean for the role of our town centres in the future?
  • What should planning be doing about this?

Along the way we looked at evidence showing the different rates of recovery from Covid lock downs last year, as well as more recent data on the level of food and drink spend in different centres. Add to this the phenomena of “Zoom Towns” and a rapid increase in the number of remote or flexibly based jobs being advertised in some places, and it is clear that something very interesting is happening in many areas.

As well as data and evidence, this workshop was also a chance to think more broadly and speculate about the factors likely to shape change in the future. We drew heavily on Mathew Carmona’s work on the existential crisis facing shopping streets and what makes a place attractive, which provides some good pointers on where planning practice should be focusing in a post covid economy, including the key factors shaping the way people choose to shop.

It would take too long to detail all the issues we covered, but I’ve attempted to capture the key points. Some of these reflect issues that are common to many town centres, but others suggest differing experiences in different type of centre or different regions of the country.

What has been happening in our town centres over recent years?

Many find it difficult to answer this question with confidence. Town centres are dynamic, with changing trends and patterns of decline or development that vary constantly. Frequent monitoring is often beyond the means of local planning teams. Added to this, the introduction of a new Use Class E in September 2020, which now covers the majority of town centre uses meaning that significant changes can take place on a high street without the need for planning permission or any formal interaction with local planners.

A few places, like Bolsover, are undertaking annual surveys of their town centre as well as utilising mobile phone data as a proxy for footfall. Others, such as Newbury, utilise data from a Business Improvement District. For many though, comprehensive evidence on the town centre is limited to local plan production or preparation of a masterplan.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is also an important source of information and there are some common experiences. The decline of town centre retail is not a new trend, but Covid has helped to accelerate this in many areas. Places as diverse as Canterbury and Plymouth, Colchester and Peterborough or Mid-Sussex and Beverley have all experienced the loss of department stores or familiar high street names.

Whilst this is common to larger towns, it is seen as less significant in smaller centres which have a stronger independent retail base and therefore less in the way of national multiples to lose. The differing experiences of larger and smaller town centres means generalisations are difficult and experience in places like Cheshire East and the East Riding suggest fewer problems for retail in their smaller towns.

A decline in retail has led to an increase in vacant units, but this contrasts with a boost in the number of food and drink-based businesses (including evening economy type venues) that is helping to re-animate town centres. It marks an increasingly important role for leisure in town centres, with planners from places as different as West Berkshire, Ipswich, Worthing and South Norfolk all experiencing the trend.

Many were also keen to talk about the increasing importance of town centre residential development. Given the introduction of a new Permitted Development Right (PDR) for the change of use from Class E to residential, this is a major part of Government policy and perhaps not surprising. But only a few places, such as Milton Keynes and Medway, report pressure for conversion of former offices to residential uses in significant numbers. Although it is a concern, PDR to residential is not yet seen as a significant trend in large parts of the country.

Instead, local councils are working hard to support new residential uses on planned sites as well as bring forward projects directly in partnerships with developers. The desire to attract town centre-based living in increasing numbers is an ambition that ran throughout the workshop and encompasses all areas. A good example is Dartford where town centre housing is not currently widespread, the new local plan encourages higher density housing, and the Council are addressing viability issues to bring forward difficult sites.

What does this mean for the role of town centres in the future?

More town centre housing, both higher and medium density, is something that many planners see as central to the future. This is based on the transport links and access to amenities that town centres offer, providing opportunities for sustainable housing on sites that become available as retail, commercial and other traditional land uses scale back.

Importantly though, planners are also alive to the benefits that a town centre residential community can bring in terms of increased spend and footfall for business as well the potential to attract new people to their district. At one end of the age scale, this may be younger professionals enjoying the opportunities of distance or flexible working and a town centre-based lifestyle. At the other end of the age spectrum, older and retired residents could be important town centre communities, benefitting from easy access to local services in amenities.

To support diversification, planners are also making efforts to introduce mixed-use development with many local authorities involved in direct investment to deliver hotels, leisure and residential alongside convenience retail schemes. For example, Cherwell Council are redeveloping a shopping centre with a hotel, supermarket, cinema and restaurant in Banbury, a significant financial commitment and long-term effort to diversify. In other places like Rochdale development is already underway and in Norwich change is being supported through City Deal and Transforming Cities Fund investment. Many councils have also taken ownership of vacant shopping space in preparation for new mixed-use schemes.

But this is not the case for all areas, and different town centres will pursue different strategies or seek to define themselves through different roles in the future. Participants talked about the Unique Selling Points (USP) they are trying to define for their town centres. For example, Canterbury is leveraging its heritage offer; whereas Worthing has an appeal through its seafront setting and proximity to the coast; and Bolsover needs to boost the provision of overnight accommodation to maximise potential for visitors to the castle and surrounding countryside.

Education also emerges as important, with some areas seeing positive impacts from the development of new further and higher education facilities. A new college campus alongside culture and leisure facilities is helping to transform a traditional town centre offer in Dudley, whilst Epsom has seen student footfall benefitting their town centre through a University of the Creative Arts. Peterborough is also seeking to establish a new university centre and Ashfield is introducing education hubs to its town centre.

What should planning be doing?

This was the question that generated the greatest amount of discussion and suggests town centres remain very much at the heart of local planners’ focus. Major areas of work for the future include:

  • Ensuring stakeholder engagement – looking beyond traditional consultation, this means actively working with and alongside local groups, businesses, and other public services to share knowledge, facilitate constructive discussions and create consensus on long-term objectives. It’s more than the usual argument about how many car parking spaces are needed!
  • Preparing comprehensive plans – many planners in the room are working on town centre master plans, strategies or supplementary planning documents. Although different plans will have a different planning status, they often bring together individual projects or schemes, set a policy framework and ensure that interventions are complementary or sequenced. A town centre plan can also help to build investor confidence as well as reduce the risk for Council assets in the town centre.
  • Consolidating retail areas – rather than extending a town centre, regeneration in the future is about consolidation. This means defining and then strengthening the core of a town centre’s retail area as well as enabling positive change to the surrounding areas. Many in the workshop talked about managing the contraction of retail space and identifying appropriate uses for sites that become available, i.e. residential, leisure or employment.
  • Delivering catalyst sites – town centres can contain several vacant sites or underused areas which rapidly become a barrier to progress or could be transformational if delivered in the right way at the right time. Planners are identifying these opportunities, and many shared their experience of using development briefs or masterplans to help bring them forward, often alongside bids for funding through the Local Growth Fund, Levelling Up Fund, Future High Street Fund and City Deals, etc.
  • Improving public realm and active travel – planners are seeking to use Community Infrastructure Levy income, Transforming Cities Funds and direct council investment to create higher quality and better designed town centre spaces, with more opportunities for enjoying time in the town centre as well as reducing the impact of motorised traffic so that walking and cycling is more attractive.

This is not a comprehensive list, with many other examples of activity in different localities. But it does suggest some core roles that planners themselves see as important to their work and which will be critical to the future of town centres.

And in conclusion …….

Reforms like the creation of a single Use Class for all commercial, business and service uses, or the introduction of PDR for residential uses, led many to suggest that there would be less of a role for planning in town centres.

In contrast, it appears from our workshop that planning and planners are at the forefront of town centre regeneration in many areas. Rather than responding to change, local planners are working with other stakeholders and taking a lead role in determining the future shape and success of their town centre.

Overall, this was a tremendously positive session revealing some of the energy and ideas that planners are bringing to town centre regeneration. We hope to build on that in PAS as we develop our work programme in this area and will maintain our support for LPAs as they continue with their plans.

1 see the PAS website for presentations and information from the conference


Don’t panic! You are never alone

Picture taken in ‘Young Ones’ student house in 1986 – but which one is Pilgrim Pete?

One of the joys of working in the PAS team is that I can spend my days talking to like minded Planners across the country, find out what they are up to and tell them about what others are doing well. Many Planners feel quite isolated at the moment and are reassured to know that they have the same pressures, worries and questions as others. I also come across some brilliant best practice so can get Planners to learn from each other and avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ To save you all time here are my top 10 issues that Development Management teams are struggling with at the moment and the top 10 best ideas I have heard over the last year.

Top 10 issues (in no particular order)

  1. The number of householder applications have (excuse the pun) gone through the roof and you are all struggling with the shear volume. Reasons seem to be due to the Covid effect of more home working and cost of moving.
  2. Planners are in very short supply particularly experienced Planners who can manage those tricky Majors. The best case officers are being poached by the applicants!
  3. Extension of times are covering up a whole multitude of sins and Heads of Planning are grappling with the need to be honest about performance versus ‘playing the game’ to avoid the threat of designation
  4. Some Councils are getting themselves in a real pickle over validation and have a philosophical dilemma whether to treat it as a administrative process or a key part of providing a customer focused service
  5. Desperate shortages of staff lead to desperate times and pre application normally is the area that suffers most. However when Councils stop pre applications they end up losing a vital discretionary income source and have poorer application submissions
  6. Another consequence of staff shortages is for the remaining staff to stop answering emails and phone calls due to pressures of work. However this normally just ends up with more complaints and grief from councillors, agents and the public
  7. There appears to be a higher expectation of Planners from the public in terms of both enforcement and determining planning applications. The world of work has changed and more people work from home so are more conscious of their local area. This means they have more time to nag the Planning Department.
  8. Social media is targeting Planning Officers and councillors more and more in a negative way. People can view Planning Committees via a webcast and can more easily pick over every word uttered by decision makers and their officers.
  9. The fear of challenge is leading officers to write ever more complex and long winded reports just at the time when time is at a premium. You need to be careful if you expect an appeal, legal challenge or complaint but most officer reports end up in the (virtual) back of the filing cabinet neglected and unread. Why are you spending so much time on the unread reports?
  10. Some Councils get tied up in knots with their ‘Heath Robinson’ approach to IT. This sometimes results in very few people actually understanding how the IT system works and to a ‘single point of failure’ scenario. Successful Councils keep things simple and logical with a good backup of officers who understand how things work.

Now here are the Top 10 ideas (again in no particular order). I have purposely focused on the day-to-day ideas that help you run an excellent Development Management service. Others will tell you about the importance of aligning Development Management with the strategic direction of the Council, future proofing your service to respond to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, addressing national policy etc. These are, maybe, the tips that you will not always be told about by others.

  1. Pair the Chair of Planning Committee up with an LGA Member Peer as a mentor. It doesn’t matter how experienced the Chair is, the best way to learn is through peer-to-peer support
  2. Have a learning through experience process where you learn from every complaint, compliment, appeal decision etc whether it is positive or negative. This is a great way to learn, show that you are learning and motivate your staff by recognising when your staff do well
  3. Make a pact with the Section 151 officer on raising pre application income whereby you will go over and above to drive up income only if the income can stay in Planning. This a great motivational incentive for staff to drive up income and can provide the justification for recruiting more staff.
  4. Change your job descriptions and staff structures so that staff can move around the department and gain promotion without having to apply for a new job. You must keep the best staff wherever they currently sit in the organisation otherwise someone else will poach them.
  5. Become best friends with your nearest RTPI accredited Planning school. Then you can find out who are the best students and entice them to work for your Planning department
  6. Introduce a ’10 minute’ officer report for the simple stuff. If a householder application has no objections and is recommended for approval it will only be the case officer and signing off officer who ever reads it so why spend more than 10 mins writing it?
  7. Set regular meetings with senior managers to agree your position on certain key developments and ensure you are proactively delivering the things that matter to your Council. One Council calls them ‘Cobra’ meetings – you know who you are!
  8. Invest in your website to maximise self help. Put your heads together as Planners and think about all the general questions you get asked on a day-to-day basis and then put them down in a Q and A section of your Planning pages. This means you don’t have to spend time answering phone calls and emails with the same old answers.
  9. Get people who know very little about Planning – your partner, your children, your next door neighbour – and test the wording of Planning Committee reports and information on your website. If they don’t understand it then you need to change the wording. Remember Planning is public facing and so the public need to understand what you are saying.
  10. Send out a pack of information with the Planning Committee agenda for Members alongside the officer report that includes plans, Google Map reference and photographs. Then at Planning Committee the officer presentations can be limited to no more than 5 minutes highlighting any key points that need to be highlighted to the Committee.

So there you go. If you already follow all the top tips well done and let PAS know if you have others that we can share. If there is something new, try it out and let us know how it went.

Most importantly keep the faith and remember – you are never alone.

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.

Biodiversity net gain – looking for perfection in an imperfect world?

I thought I’d write a blog to celebrate the 18th anniversary of when I started working in planning for the natural environment with English Nature in Kent. Looking back on my career, I feel we’re in a more positive place than we have ever been in terms of environmental planning, but we are also much more aware of the huge challenges we face – Monday’s IPCC report and its ‘code red for humanity’ bringing these into sharp focus. My feeling is we’ll only deal with these challenges if we take action now and learn as we go, not expecting any solution to be perfect, but taking small steps to move us forward all the time.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running workshops for local authority officers and Councillors to inform our PAS project helping LPAs get ready for mandatory biodiversity net gain. These have generated a huge amount of useful information and input both for our project, but also to pass on to Defra and Natural England as they develop details of how the scheme will work. 

There is a lot of positivity out there about this new initiative, but also significant concern about how it’s going to work. How can overwhelmed planning departments with no ecological expertise make decisions on whether an application is compliant? How do we avoid developers gaming the system? How do we make sure this actually delivers gains? Won’t biodiversity net gain make schemes unviable?

In the meantime, there have been some articles in the press criticising biodiversity net gain, seeing it as a spreadsheet exercise or numbers game and implying that it will lead to more habitat loss and environmental destruction, plus that it is incompatible with ‘re-wilding’.

At the moment, we don’t have all the details of how mandatory biodiversity net gain will work, as the Environment Bill provisions will be accompanied by secondary legislation and guidance. However, we do know that a number of key safeguards mean it should be a significant improvement on what happens now. An important point is that biodiversity net gain does not replace any of the existing protections for sites, habitats and species in place now, nor does it replace the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ of avoid impacts first, then mitigate them and only compensate as a last resort. We also know that net gain provisions will not apply to certain irreplaceable habitats (as yet to be confirmed, but undoubtedly to include ancient woodland) and that councils will receive ‘new burdens’ funding to implement the new requirements.

Undeniably there are issues with biodiversity net gain and it won’t (and doesn’t yet) work perfectly, but we need to compare it to the currently very imperfect system where the majority of unprotected habitats (outside designated sites, like SSSIs) are lost through development and not replaced in any way, even to achieve no net loss. 

The Biodiversity Metric provides a way of calculating habitat losses and gains to enable us to try and achieve a net gain. Yes, it’s not perfect and it does simplify things, but the new Biodiversity Metric 3.0 is a huge improvement on the previous 2.0 version (despite recent media reports, which almost exclusively related to issues with the old v.2.0). 

We need a system that is workable and given the complexities of nature and ecosystems, that will always have to simplify and cannot possibly take everything into account. Also, the metric is not the be-all-and-end-all, the system around it really matters. We need strategic planning for nature and the right resources and expertise to make good policy and decisions (on biodiversity net gain, but also existing nature-related planning provisions). This Natural England blog and Tony Juniper’s introduction to the metric on YouTube (about 4 mins in) explain this eloquently. 

Thinking back to 2003 when even trying to protect an internationally designated site for nature was a battle, I no longer feel like I’m waving from the sidelines. Biodiversity net gain, along with a number of other tools and initiatives, offer us a huge opportunity to address the crises we face and create better places for people and nature. 

Yes, we need to be aware of the issues with new approaches and try to resolve them, but we also need to start giving this a go and try it out – in the end biodiversity net gain is going to be mandatory in a couple of years’ time and we’ll have no choice but to get on and do it. That way, we’ll also be able to test and improve as we go (as has happened with the metric). 

I don’t think we’ll ever have a perfect solution – nature doesn’t follow rules – but BNG is a lot better than what we have now, where the majority of development leads to outright biodiversity loss, not even no net loss. So that’s what I plan to do with this project – help LPAs get started and give biodiversity net gain a go, sharing existing good practice and showing how it can work and move us another (quite big) step forward.

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.

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



Getting It Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning: say yes!

My final act of eighteen months at PAS as the Comms Manager is to write a blog about what I’ve learned about planning. I knew next to nothing at the start – now I’m a little bit wiser… but not a lot.

Of course, it’s the large developments that get the headlines – and certainly get the public’s attention. It’s a tough old business. More houses are needed, but hardly anyone would welcome development in their area. But this you all know.

Being a local authority planner could be seen as rather like being a football referee – as long as the decisions go someone’s way they hardly notice the referee; but the moment it doesn’t…

Politics really does get in the way. In a perfect planning world politics would be taken out of planning and ‘vote for me cos I’ll block this’ would be outlawed. (As Adam Dodgshon has previously blogged about.) But this ain’t gonna happen. Sadly.

One of my favourite words is ‘however’. However, local authority planners can and do wear white hats. (However can be such an uplifting word!)

Local authority planners can be involved in some truly inspiring projects and can bring joy to hundreds or even thousands. I live in a new-build flat and I love it… so thanks developers and thanks local authority planners who helped make this happen. Areas can be literally redeveloped. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those unused horrible looking brownfield or wasteland sites could be something colourful and beneficial to communities – you can make this happen!

Another of my favourite words is ‘yes’. Even better if it’s ‘Yes!’ From what I’ve picked up, it would be great if more often planners said:

– Yes! to pre-app engagement

– Yes! to embracing technology to keep customers informed (which saves time and money)

– Yes! to actively engaging communities on projects

– Yes! to forming regional groups to learn from each other and share best practice

– Yes! to writing more in the style of Hemingway (sparse prose, rather than wordy and rambly)

– Yes! to using the superb (and free) help on offer from PAS. (I couldn’t resist.)

In summary, it can be a frustrating business, for sure, but if you persevere you can help build something long-lasting. And not many folk can say that.

Housing crisis – There is about to be a new government – it will be fine…

Listening to Radio 4, women from Bexley were talking about when they were young – they got married, lived with their parents for a year to save a deposit for a house, and then bought one. They went on to say that now there was no way their children could do that.

Who’s fault is that? One said the government had to do something  and another said that the government couldn’t do anything, and it was all because we were too soft letting too many people into the country.

The impact of the ageing population still living in their houses, some people still having babies increasing the need for supply, years of undersupply and decreasing affordability, exacerbated in some areas by the domestic draw of economic prosperity; seems to be forgotten by the ‘immigration’ viewpoint put forward particularly in the press.

There is just not enough housing nor is there enough planning for housing. And there’s increasing resistance to housing in many areas – often where the need and demand is highest. Essentially, people don’t like change; people particularly don’t like change that in any way undermines their personal life experiences.

What makes people resistant to new housing development (I have been here before is lack of infrastructure and lack of the provision of affordable housing for those in their community. People will resist when they find that they can’t get their child/grandchild into the local school, when it is more difficult to get a doctor’s appointment etc.

People fail to connect that their view of not wanting new development next to them, in their town, on their countryside, to why their children are still living at home at 26 – and why the generation of 20+ now don’t contemplate ‘family’ life as they are still living in their mum and dad’s back bedroom.

So surely, the government, house builders, developers, land agents and all the others involved in the industry know this…? Well, yes, but effectively tackling the infrastructure issue appears too challenging and politically the issue of more housing at a local level is toxic in many areas. So, the main political parties appear to agree that there is a housing shortage but… they will need to translate national rhetoric to local policies in action – they will have to demonstrate leadership and bottle to deliver and meet the needs of the country and its population, particularly the young. To do this they will need to take on the vocal ‘middle-aged’ middle class and the self-interested landowners, developers, housebuilders etc..

At present some government policies have made it more difficult to achieve the provision of affordable housing and housing accompanied by infrastructure.

The CIL Regs which now prohibit pooling five or more s106 obligations (as a reason for granting planning permission), with only a third of local authorities having a CIL in place, will mean that many authorities have no mechanism to collect contributions towards the necessary infrastructure that communities crave. This lack of a mechanism may make it impossible to get contributions to even basic mitigation which may result in the refusal of development including market and affordable housing development that are so desperately needed.

In addition, both CIL and now S106 net off existing vacant floorspace – further reducing the LPA’s ability to seek contributions to infrastructure and affordable housing respectively.

I have before voiced concern about the issue of viability, land value and the role of the land owner ( if this is appreciated as a crisis – harming lives and the country’s prosperity – the role and expectation of the landowner needs to come under scrutiny and be addressed by government.

All that said, an obvious difficulty is that the planning system keeps changing – local planning authorities (LPAs) keep getting knocked off course with their plan making and their CIL. Every time something changes they have to review their evidence, update their evidence, spend more money, get council approval and so on… An example of this is six changes to the CIL regulations in five years and changes by examiners to the interpretation of these regulations, most notably in relation to viability and affordable housing.

Changes to s106 and CIL knock on to plan-making and plan wide viability. And, finally, the challenges of objectively assessed need and duty to cooperate (with no regional plan), which need to be balanced, should not be underestimated as obstacles to the planning and delivery of housing.

But don’t worry – there is about to be a new government – it will be fine..

Community Infrastructure Levy hits Housebuilding – If only it were that simple!

Savills’ recent report, referred to by Planning and the FT – – seem to suggest the correlation between introducing a CIL and an area not being attractive for house building is simple. I don’t think it is a clear correlation to say CIL makes the area less attractive for house building.

Firstly there are very few authorities with CIL – many of them have relatively recently adopted it – Savills’ evidence base is not huge (16 local authorities). Nearly all of those that have a CIL already had a plan in place. These may have already consented much of their growth and will have allocated sites that have been the subject of planning consents that are already being built out – in the best plan led fashion. That cannot be said for all the authorities in the country.

Also, as identified by Savills, there is a huge a spike in the numbers of planning applications being granted subject to s106 obligations at every authority pre the adoption of a CIL. Many of these schemes have been in negotiation for years and to start again with discussions in a CIL world would not be desirable –although the decision rests with the developer. It is also worth bearing in mind that a lot of applications will have been hanging around for some time pre CIL as developers want a planning ‘decision’ and by that they often mean the resolution to grant subject to a s106. They are not always in a hurry to complete the s106 as they are not intending to go straight on site and the resolution will be enough for them to work on. However an authority’s decision to adopt CIL gives a new imperative to get the s106 sorted.

To compare these limited CIL authorities with the rest of the country is very misleading- it should be noted that areas without CIL are also usually areas without a plan and probably, in a lot of cases, without a five year housing land supply. These areas are magnets for developers seeking consents on unallocated land under the NPPF- the rush has been on to get planning permission on these non-plan led sites – increasing the number of houses granted in some areas.

In terms of getting money in – that only happens in a CIL regime when the development starts and in the cases of authorities with an instalments policy later still. So it is not surprising that these 16 authorities, after only a year, have little to show so far considering: the post adoption lull of consents, then the normal lag to get development on site, the developer focus on areas which are targets for non-plan led housing, and that CIL money at most authorities will only ever be able to contribute a relatively small proportion of the overall infrastructure costs associated with the growth plan.

Savills do make a very good point that CIL does not get collected from the broad range of development originally envisaged and the amount the charging authority are able to collect has been reduced due to the neighbourhood proportion, the changes in exemptions including self-build. Most authorities with large strategic sites appear to be sticking to the use of s106 with zero or low CIL for broader strategic infrastructure – this aids the delivery of key infrastructure on these large sites. Where possible, and the CIL/s106 rules allow, CIL will be best used as match funding or part of a wider funding strategy bring in money from LEPS, City Deals, New homes bonus, business rate retention etc. for strategic or sub regional infrastructure; but all of this takes time to implement. Many charging authorities (District level) have not had the experience of pulling together funding, forward funding, and delivery of major infrastructure. This is a whole new area where they will need to develop the skills and mechanisms to deliver projects themselves or with others. Having available mechanisms for future funding infrastructure and available advice for these authorities will help the delivery of infrastructure projects in these areas.