Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, examines the implications of allowing private firms to assess planning applications
Planning minister Brandon Lewis announced to weary MPs at a late-night sitting of Parliament, shortly after their return from the Christmas break, that the secretary of state, Greg Clark, had inserted a clause into the Housing & Planning Bill in late December to open up the processing of planning applications to competition.
The draft schedule states that the scheme would allow applications in pilot areas to be processed, “if the applicant so chooses”, not by a local planning authority (LPA) but by “a designated person” (DP). Let’s look at whether this is a good idea.
Some commentators have likened it to approved inspectors for building control and they see no reason why such a system cannot work in planning. Whether it could work is to be seen, but the building control model does not provide much helpful evidence. Having managed both systems, I can confirm that the two processes are entirely different. Building control is the testing of a design against a set of standards (the approved documents). The elements that you are testing are all measurable against the standards: a beam will either support the load or it will not. I am aware that it is not a completely objective process, but it is infinitely more objective than planning. Dealing with applications for planning permission, in contrast, requires a far greater number of judgements to be made, often in a political environment involving consultation with the local community. Building control has little if any involvement with the community or politicians in its day-to-day operation.
The presumption from government seems to be that the processing and the determination of applications are separate and discrete. They are not
There are two fundamental challenges to making this pilot project work. Firstly, there is a considerable range of inputs needed for the application process (people, capabilities, systems, procedures and information) that have to be brought together successfully. Some of these elements are quite expensive (such as specialist IT systems) but the workload (typically 3,000 or more applications per year) disperses these costs and makes it economic. It is also quite complex and changes constantly. You have to get it right every time. If you mess up you can become the victim of the ombudsman or the Planning Court via a judicial review. Secondly, the presumption from government seems to be that the processing and the determination of applications are separate and discrete. They are not. I will look at each of these in more detail.
A development management service will have the following systems to process its workload successfully:
:: A planning application IT system (such as Idox or Northgate) to handle the workload, the production of documents, the provision of information via the council’s website, management controls etc.
:: An up-to-date database of properties in its area so it can identify which neighbours to notify about applications. Generally this is purchased from the Post Office and kept up to date through the post code allocation system.
:: A database of safeguarding information (eg notifiable installations, land liable to flooding, listed buildings etc) usually held on a GIS system and linked to the planning application IT system to identify statutory and other consultees.
:: The provision of the statutory register – usually now online.
It will have to provide the following services:
:: Dealing with questions from members of the public who have been notified about the application, are trying to understand it and are formulating any response that they may have.
:: Dealing with questions from politicians, such as local councillors and MPs.
:: Dealing with requests for more information or amendments from consultees, such as Natural England, Historic England, Environment Agency.
How can a DP do this, other than in close partnership with the LPA? All the current examples of outsourcing or externalisation are based on either a partnering approach (eg Terraquest) or the provision of the whole service (eg the Re or Urban Vision models provided by Capita). The notion that a DP can operate footloose across a number of councils carrying out the processing of applications cannot work without the particular LPA carrying most of the above functions. The DP can do little more that write up the report. If this is the case, how are the costs of the service going to be dispersed between the two providers: the council for validation, registration, communication and determination services and the DP for report writing?
All the elements are intrinsically linked and it’s all about placemaking
Turning now to whether you can deal with processing and determining as separate and discrete operations. As the leader of a development management team you manage your staff and the processes that are carried out to ensure successful delivery. It’s no different to any other team leader role, but a core planning principle set out in paragraph 17 of the NPPF is that planning should “not simply be about scrutiny, but instead be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which people live their lives”. For an individual application the process starts in the pre-application stage and continues right the way through to the granting of planning permission and beyond. All the elements are intrinsically linked and it’s all about placemaking.
So what does the government have in mind for this pilot? Who does the pre-application work, who negotiates the amendments to proposals, who deals with the statutory consultees and balances the often competing demands? This is a complex process that is not about ticking boxes, but about understanding each of the boxes and then weighing them up to arrive at a balanced decision. There are important, subtle nuances that come into play in terms of decision making, particularly where the application is controversial and the politics become a little strained. Who is responsible for the recommendation if the application is reported to a planning committee? What happens if the chief planner disagrees with the DP’s recommendation? Who presents the application to the committee? Who handles any complaints over the handling of the application and how is the process going to be resourced? Who pays the costs on appeal if a decision to refuse or a disputed condition is imposed at the recommendation of a DP? This is all one process, carefully managed by the leadership within the planning service. It is hard to see how a freelance, footloose DP can add value, unless they are in partnership with the LPA.
As chair of the Planning Officers Society, I am keen to see innovations in service provision that bring new resources into the planning system and improve its effectiveness. The society constantly promotes them. However, they need to add value and bring down costs, not add complexity, uncertainty and additional costs. Lewis told MPs that applicants will be able to “shop around for the services that best meet their needs”. Is that what planning is all about? According to the NPPF it is not. We want and promote a more efficient and effective planning system and are ready to work with government to make this and other initiatives a success, but the starting point must be to really understand the planning application service.
Mike Kiely is chair of the Planning Officers Society and a former local authority planner
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