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There are pages and pages about documents already adopted and usually lots of legal gumph about prescribed periods and out of date regulation numbers.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 https://planningadvisor.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/what-we-want-is-economic-growth-but-not-house-building/) 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 (https://planningadvisor.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/do-the-landed-aristocracy-hold-the-key/) 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 – http://offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk/NewsAttachments/RLP/SpotlightCILIs_it_delivering.pdf – 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.

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 alice.lester@local.gov.uk