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


No More Pooling – Date is Looming: Thoughts of a CIL Anorak

I have been wearing my CIL anorak a lot recently – fully zipped up and my hood on… It seems that no matter how long I do CIL there are always questions to be pondered on – these are the ones that are exercising me at the moment.

Do people really get that there is no pooling of more than five s106 obligations after 2015? I am not convinced that this has totally sunk in – or that the implications of this has been explained to councillors or management teams. I also think that some think that there is a way around it – if there is please tell me! I can understand that some take the view that they will do everything on large strategic sites with s106 – this might be possible but:

• Have you worked out how you can make sure that these sites are not broken up into more than five parcels?
• Do you have policies that define not only the new developments but also the required infrastructure on the strategic site?
• And will you only accept a master planning application for the whole package? Would you be in a position to refuse applications that came in for chunks of it?

If you have thought this through and have an air- tight approach – I am really interested. It certainly needs a lot of thought.

In areas where the growth is not strategic sites I am truly puzzled if people think the pooling limit will work for them. The assumption must be that they will not bother. That CIL is not worth doing, is too expensive to implement, there’s not enough viability to get a decent rate, and will only provide 5-10% of infrastructure money (a small contribution – but not to be sniffed at I would have thought). So, is the focus on ‘New Homes Bonus’ to provide supporting infrastructure?

I also worry that some think that you can still pool if it is site-specific mitigation – just to be clear –you can’t pool five or more, even if it is necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms.

So what will you do? Refuse it?

Oh, to end on some potentially good news – there is no pooling restrictions on s278 of the Highways Act. Hooray!

For more information, see the CIL section on the PAS website.

This is Quality (Part Two)

Planning Quality Framework: flexible…agile…worthwhile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We launch in September – want more info?

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

And there’s more…

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


As I am finding, Planning is a very busy industry. When busy, people often lose track of why they do the work they do. So, I ‘encouraged’ PAS folk to down tools (well, stop typing) and consider their employment for a few minutes.

The result was that we #loveplanning. Okay, no one actually mentioned the hashtag – but this is a good way to group together the love for our work using social media. Over the next few weeks we shall be tweeting just why we #loveplanning. You can follow us via @pas_team. Feel free to tweet us and share why you do using this hashtag.

Twitter doesn’t leave too much space for words, so some more lengthy reasons are below. Again, feel free to add your own via the comments box at the bottom of this blog.

We #loveplanning and we hope you do too.

Alice Lester: I #loveplanning as you get to dream things, think about things, improve things, deliver things. Your decisions can have a lasting impact on many people, both now and in the future. It is a force for good, managing change in a way that improves the environment.

Martin Hutchings: I #loveplanning as it can’t be tamed; it divides and unites, is the problem and solution, the question and answer, the beauty and the beast. But we try… we try…

Nicholas Wardle: I #loveplanning as the people are so passionate about what we do. There’s a real drive to improve the world in which we live in – and few other industries can shape our surrounds as much.

Phillipa Silcock: I #loveplanning as it reconciles need, demand and willingness in a real world jigsaw. There’s no picture to refer to or need to negotiate with each piece; persuade them to fit together.

A Leap to the LEP – or prepare for the charm offensive

Last week, the Government published a guidance note that represents an earthquake realigning the geopolitical/economic plates of councils and Local Enterprise partnerships. For those of you with an interest in seismic activity, that’s about a Richter scale 6 –

6.0–6.9 Strong Earthquake-resistant structures survive with slight to moderate damage. Poorly-designed structures receive moderate to severe damage. Felt in wider areas; up to hundreds of miles/kilometres from the epicentre.

If you have not caught up with a copy of the Initial Guidance for Local Enterprise Partnerships on Growth Deals, then I would heartily recommend that you follow the link and read

Ostensibly this publication is simply to introduce the new Growth Deals that are the successor to City Deals and a further step in implementing the response to Lord Heseltine’s review – “…ensuring that no place gets left behind”, as it beguilingly puts it. So underpinning Growth Deals is the principle that the Local Growth Fund (LGF) will be allocated, partly to deliver on the Government’s commitment that all places will receive something from LGF, with approximately £1billion in 2015/16 to be allocated in a competitive way.

But read further, and the whole package – including the guidance on what’s expected in and from the LEPs’ Strategic Economic Plans – seems to mark a step change in the LA/LEP relationship.  Up to now, the message that local authorities need to get closer to the LEP in order to access the funds that these bodies are gatekeepers to has more often than not brought disenchanted responses about lack of influence ( particularly from districts) and lack of LEP interest in local issues and local decision making.  But with this guidance, comes  a clear steer that from now on LEPS will have just as much incentive to make sure that their local authorities are on board with the strategic economic strategy.

Why? Because the commitment of LAs to the growth strategy will be essential for success in the competitive element of Local Growth Fund.

The competitive element of the LGF is going to be influenced by an assessment of the LEPS Strategic Economic Plan.  The scope of what LEPS will need to show their local authorities are up for is huge.  This guidance sets the criteria for assessment and includes the need to demonstrate an active commitment by effective, efficient, co-operating local authorities.

Some key elements that the plan will need to show are:

  • Demonstrating a wider commitment to growth – meaning
    • that the plan is sustainable across local spending and decision making,
    • that up to date  local plans are aligned or jointly prepared with a positive framework for growth
    • with planning and regulatory decisions that support businesses, and
    • effective regulatory services that meet business needs.

So – for a PAS audience, the LEP will have a vested interest in both the way local plans are drawn up and the way development management decisions are processed and determined.

  • Aligning or pooling LA capital and revenue spending on growth – meaning
    • LAs decisions on  capital and revenue spending should give weight to supporting the strategic economic plan ( specifically spending on housing, transport, economic development, regeneration, planning and infrastructure)
    • LA asset management ( rationalising use of assets, selling assets)  and
    • mainstream spending should support growth
    • a proportion of New Homes Bonus will be handed over by councils to be pooled as a positive means of supporting strategic housing delivery (Government will determine the proportion).
  • Effective collaboration on economic development –  meaning
    • Where LAs have merged teams and/or services for efficiency, or
    • where there are shared plans, this will be taken as evidence of partners being able to work together to improve efficiency and effectiveness to reduce risk and prove the strength of partnership.

The document suggests that over the Summer there is lots of work done on “investing in partnerships, diagnosis, direction and commitment to ensure that there are strong foundations for the proposals put forward”.

So should local authorities be in expectation of a bit of a charm offensive from their LEP?

In preparation, it will be the canny local authorities who have their heads sorted out about what they want and what they are prepared to do in return.

On the upside for local authorities, the proposals should fit well with the LGA’s manifesto on “Rewiring Public Services”.  The guidance includes a section looking specifically at the role of accountability in the spending of Local Growth Fund.  When the LEPs were first established, the emphasis seemed to be on the engagement and leadership of the private sector in driving through strategies that would deliver businesses needs.  With this guidance I am seeing a swing in the direction of local political accountability – hence the need to ensure that local elected representatives have a greater role in the collective decision making. The guidance clearly lays the responsibility for ensuring that the public money is spent “with regularity, propriety and value for money” on democratically elected council leaders (oh, and centrally, on the ministers). The need for individual LEPs to review their governance arrangements to encapsulate the new requirements is mentioned several times in the document.

There are a slew of suggestions about how to build these strong relationships and foster collective decision making. In terms of the LAs, these include Joint Leaders committees, the creation of Economic Prosperity Boards and other arrangements that will help to deliver collective decision making.  The term “combined authorities” is used – although from reading the guidance  I am left with no clear idea of what the proposal is here.

There is a suggestion that the uneasy jigsaw of LEPs and local authority boundaries could be reconsidered in order to give better representation for councils that are not formally represented or where more than one LEP area is involved ( indeed, there is a window identified if the Local Enterprise Partnership decide that they wish to change their boundaries in order to better set out their vision across a functional economic area).

So this is the offering to local authorities – a real role in decision making?

What will the councils need to be prepared to offer in return?

  • A greater willingness to subjugate local interests to collective decision making for the wider economic area (see the repeated mention of joint work on local plans)
  • A preparedness to make the hard decisions on development proposals to achieve the objectives of the Strategic Economic Plan (interesting to speculate on the relationship between the development plan and the strategic Economic Plan in making decisions on planning applications)
  • A preparedness to take a wider view on the use of individual council’s assets where, not just the assets themselves but the receipt from disposals, might be earmarked for supporting elements of the Strategic Economic Plan ( sometimes being prepared to put the collective good ahead of pressing local financial interest?)
  • A willingness to move more quickly towards shared services, joint contracts, and even these “combined authorities”.

Back to the earthquake analogy – from my reading of this guidance, I see a whole new landscape being created for local authorities and LEPS to work in. It has come about quite suddenly and the timetable for making the most of the opportunities that are thrown up by this step change are quite short.

The key dates for the Strategic Economic Plans are:

  • December 2013 – LEPs share their first draft of the Strategic Economic Plan with Government
  • March 2014 – LEPs submit their final version of the Strategic Economic Plans to Government
  • April 2014 – Government begins the formal assessment of Strategic Economic Plans
  • July 2014 – Local Growth Fund offers are made to LEPs.

I think that rather than sitting back and enjoying the hazy, lazy days of Summer – this timetable should put a new urgency into the discussions about what local authorities want for the growth of their communities and how much they are willing to commit to managing local expectations in order to increase the chances of accessing big chunks of Local Growth Fund cash to deliver on the big economic plans.

The Duty to co-operate – maybe that was just the pre- tremor?

New Blog Series – Secret Secondment (Part 1 of 6)

Secret Secondment

There will be a time, maybe not be too far away, where it becomes clear that to deliver a cost-effective service, you may have to look beyond your own resources, and you will want to move quickly.

Follow me on secondment, as I discover the secret of how to get two councils to merge their planning services. Over the coming months I’ll share my first-hand experiences getting to the heart of the issues, difficult decisions, political and managerial challenges, and share tips on how best to navigate a way through and around them.

Preparing the ground

It’s difficult to embark on a project like this from a standing start. So, to begin this series, I discuss what I call the ‘change before the change’ – the circumstances that Continue reading

Planning Reform from the councillor coal face

I’ve been out and about a lot lately, at different Councils and PAS events, talking to officers and councillors about planning reform. There’s a mixed response, ranging from ‘car crash’ to ‘about time’.  I haven’t noticed any patterns based along political party lines.  But here’s a summary of the views from the coalface of local government – and most importantly, from the people needed to make the Government’s reforms work. Continue reading

Local Planning Fees – what next ?

After a bit of a scramble, and with some help from our friends, we published our work and thoughts on local planning fees last week. By and large I’m very pleased with it, and it seems to have done its job working alongside the more political lobbying position of the LGA. As is the way, everyone’s thoughts now turn to what next ? Given that October isn’t really that far away, what practical things should we begin now to prepare for locally set fees ? Continue reading

Survival skills for planners

I heard Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralization speak earlier this week and while its clearly it’s all change again on Planet Planning, he was enthusiastic (he said) about planners taking on a more facilitative role in making sure that the development  investment delivered the place that communities want.  Unpicking development plans and reinventing them to weight neighbourhood desires more heavily is one thing, but he was also talking about collaborative working between local authorities and communities to enable and encourage development investment in the right stuff to meet the whole range of goals.

He talked about the negativity of adversarial development control  (my words would be squashing the ability of planning to innovate and problem solve) and the need to look at and persuade the community to look at  development differently.   While the Minister wasn’t giving away much detail – I was busy filling in the gaps with a description of development management!

 We have been talking up this approach for three years now.  The supported learning groups that POS have facilitated been wildly encouraged or deeply frustrated at the difficulty of changing attitudes, sometimes in equal measure and sometimes both at the same time.  But over the whole country, I have been interested to know what the pace of change has been. 

 PAS recently commissioned a survey to find out whether Councils had changed their practices to take on development management  ways of working.   DM was never intended to be a one size fits all approach,  but we used a few practices to indicate aspects of a transformation. The result is a half full glass: Continue reading

Locally set fees for planning

Unusually for DCLG (I think), the recent consultation on the deregulation of planning fees is being accompanied by a mini road show. I’m supposed to be at one today in Leeds, but the snow has cancelled it. The first, in London, was in front of the developers themselves. I followed DCLG’s announcement with a presentation putting forward our intentions for the consultation. It was a novel and interesting approach, and I think we all got something out of the fairly robust exchange of views. On reflection, I hadn’t thought enough about how best to explain some of the issues. In fact, despite working on the costs of planning for almost two years, there are a couple of things I hadn’t really thought about enough at all. Continue reading