Friday, 2 December 2016

A good planning system needs good planners.

I cannot remember exactly why, I may have been in a flap about a councillor or consultant giving me a hard time, but I remember being told by my principle officer and team leader to relax. ‘It’s only a game’, he said.

Now. Let’s be clear. Planning is clearly not a game. Late Victorian intervention into a laissez-faire market on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged was not a game. The need to rebuild the country after the great wars and to build homes for heroes was not a game. Looking back on my time in development control with ten years more experience myself I think that my former colleague was expressing a world-weary, cynical view that when you strip back the noble traditions of the profession and look narrowly at the ability of one person to get anything done, you have to play ‘the game’.

I was on the panel at a ‘Movers & Shakers’ breakfast seminar recently (check me out) and was asked what I would like to see in the Autumn Statement and much-trailed Housing White Paper. My answer, born out of optimism more than expectation, was that I would like to see more resources for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs).

Whilst the resource issue is seemingly on Minister Barwell’s radar…

… there was no recognition of it in the Autumn Statement and if it is to be recognised in the White Paper it will perhaps most likely be in the Government’s long-awaited position on locally-set planning application fees (which I will come back to).

As Primal Scream might have said in an early demo version of ‘Rocks’, dealers keep dealing, junkies keep scoring, Governments keep tinkering, and practitioners keep practicing. The White Paper will no doubt introduce another round of reform for planners to get to grips with and that will driven by what Simon Ricketts eloquently describes here as short-term political priorities. There ain’t no use in praying. That’s the way it’s staying. Baby.

Again, let us put to one side and return one day to the quite important question of what planning is for and how the system should be structured to achieve that purpose. Let us instead think about the system as it is presently constructured and how within it planners can get good plans in place and get good applications approved.

The tinkering does, without doubt, yield some benefits. The deemed discharge of planning conditions, for example, is sensible. But tinkering also has some unquantifiable opportunity costs because whilst planners are getting to grips with the practical implications of another ministerial missive (I also spoke at a Starter Homes conference recently (again, check me out) and, for example, two years after the concept was first trailed there are still more unknowns than knowns…) they are not progressing local plans or dealing with applications.

The case for planning is surely as strong now as it was in the Victorian or post-war eras. Consequently, the case for more LPA resource to get on and plan is surely now as strong as it ever was. In contemplating the merits of direct investment relative to further reform it is instructive to consider how many of the Government’s previous tinkerings are actually intended to remedy what good officers should be doing as a matter of course anyway.

The Housing & Planning Bill actually makes provision for applicants to choose whether it is the LPA or an alternative provider that determines their application. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill actually provides that a LPA cannot impose a pre-application condition without the written agreement of an applicant. Are we really now suggesting that even if applicants do have to make do with a LPA assessing their proposal they can be assured that, by law, an officer will at least be in touch about conditions prior to a decision? Yes. It has come to this and it is a real shame. Good officers know who is a good applicant, what is a good application, how to get good applications approved.

The reductions in local government and LPA budgets are well documented, and planning teams are clearly now tasked with doing more with less. Less well-documented though is the impact on the skills within planning teams. This is only a suspicion, but I would contend that more often than not the older, more experienced officers have either been offered early retirement or have been allowed to retire without their posts being filled. Junior staff have then been over-promoted and many development control officers may have progressed from being technical clerks with neither planning training nor practical experience.

This then contributes to a confluences of circumstances whereby ever-more complex applications are submitted by better trained, more experienced, better resourced (and better remunerated) planners into ever-more complex policy and political environments to be determined by less well trained less experienced, less well resourced (and less well remunerated) planners. The result, almost inevitably, is confusion and delay (as Sir Topham Hatt would say).

The average Barratt planning application took over a year to get from pre-application consultation to Section 106 Agreement in 2014/15. In fact it was exactly the same time that it was taking in 2013/14, despite the improvements to process made by the land and planning teams within the business and the previous Government’s attempts to ‘speed-up planning’. Again, this is only a suspicion, but perhaps those internal efficiencies and those previous reforms were simply cancelled out by fewer officers dealing with applications.

Anyway. I am nothing if not positive and pragmatic. The Government is not going to provide funds for LPAs to elevate the pay scales of planners to the extent that the bright, young things are not tempted by the bright lights of consultancy and the wise, old owls, who know how to oil and then turn the wheels, are tempted back in.

The Government might though tinker with application fees and allow LPAs the discretion to set their own. From what I can see the development industry will have no issue with the actual officer time required to determine applications being reflected in the application fee. This cost is deductible during land value calculations and there is no talk of the useful ‘free go’ provisions being scrapped.

I have some sympathy with the HBF view on locally set fees though, which is a concern that they will not actually result in an increase of the LPA’s overall budget. If a LPA currently raises, say 50% of it’s budget from application fees and the other 50% from the Council budget, and then raises another 20% in fees, will it not follow that the Council will expect the planning department to find 20% of savings?

The mythical Planning Performance Agreement (PPA) could be a way of getting funds directly into frontline development control service, but the thresholds for the use of such are typically quite high and so catch relatively few applications. Perhaps organisations, like housebuilders, that submit, over time, multiple applications that would cumulatively go over the PPA threshold could be afforded their own company-wide PPA by an individual LPA. A binding commitment on one side to issue permission by a certain date could be reciprocated by a binding commitment to start on site by a certain date. Perhaps PPAs could be created on an industry-by-industry, sector-by-sector basis. The promoters of, for example, city-centre PRS schemes or logistics schemes could make a joint contribution to the LPA that would allow department heads to identify officers with specialisms in city-centre PRS or logistics schemes. 

There is, in my humble opinion, nothing fundamentally wrong with the planning system and there are no fundamental blockages to good applications being approved. But it is hard work. At that Starter Homes conference somebody told me, for example, about a London borough that recently signed on the same day three different Section 106 Agreements relating to affordable housing and all three agreements were based upon different templates. No amount of tinkering will encourage the head of planning and the head of legal services to use a Borough-wide standard Section 106 Agreement template.

You may say that I am dreamer, but the planning system should not be confrontational. Good landowners, working with good developers and good consultants, should be working with good officers to get those good plans in place and to get those good applications approved. Let us be realistic though. Not everybody carries with them my moral rectitude, and the sometimes exponentially greater land value that the grant of planning permission confers can attract those seeking to game the system. This is the quasi-judicial regulatory process with private interest on one side and public interest on the other. As in any regulatory system, if your gamekeepers are not better than their poachers then your pheasants are going to get plucked.

Planning, to conclude, is not a game, but getting anything done, and working with the myriad of players and their multitudinous motivations within a multi-layered legal, policy and political framework, can make it feel like one. The Government of the day sets the rules of the game and, like Bernie Ecclestone sitting atop Formula 1, can tinker with them until the result is a satisfactory one. It seems to me though that for the time being leaving the rules alone and evening up the teams would make for a more rewarding spectacle.