With the NPPF taking centre stage again, we look forward to further announcements and reform as the Conservatives and The Labour Party try to seize the initiative on the housing crisis and planning policy agenda as a General Election approaches.
Meanwhile, users remain bogged down in a system that is chronically under-funded, under-valued and under-resourced. Whatever system we have in the future it will only work if it is properly resourced.
The Planning Delivery Skills Fund (PDSF) and other funding measures provides much needed support to help clear backlogs and for skills development or both. A PDSF of £29m will barely scratch at the surface of the problem and the amount of the awards will hardly be game-changing, as welcome as they might be. Reference to the so-called ‘super squad’ shows how these announcements are seemingly influenced by a focus on social media soundbites, rather than leading on the practicalities of how money can be spent most effectively.
The planning consultancy sector will undoubtedly assist in clearing some of those backlogs and play a greater role in assisting the development management functions of local planning authorities in the future. Of course, providing such assistance isn’t new but there will be many more and different types of opportunities, and these are increasingly reflected in our workloads at Lichfields.
This is the first in a series of blogs looking at how we assist local planning authorities and how things might shape up more generally in the future. This one examines the route map belatedly emerging out of the Government’s Building Capacity and Capability Programme. The Planning Delivery Fund is a stop gap that will help 180 local authorities, but what are the likely long-term outcomes for dealing with this chronic problem?
The problems with poor performance and under-resourcing emanate largely from massive cuts to spending in local government and low morale resulting from that, and the negative rhetoric arising out of Central Government over the years to bolster its arguments for reform; much of which has further complicated the system and made the resourcing and low productivity problems worse.
Irrespective of whether any future Government might be able to genuinely simplify the planning system, there might be a silver bullet on its way in the form of the digitalisation of the planning system and the greater use of artificial intelligence, an area of reform to which the government is giving close attention.
The property and planning worlds have been very slow to convert from analogue to digital thinking and the significant current investment by Government in this sphere will undoubtedly continue, whatever a future Government might look like after the next General Election.
Planning data will be increasingly ‘open source’. Planners will be spending more time on interpretating information, making judgments and liaising with key stakeholders and decision-makers in higher value roles, as massive improvements to the processing and presentation of numeric and spatial data and other information to assist decision taking and plan making, take effect.
If we assume digitalisation will make a fundamental difference in about five years or so, what happens between now and then?
The focus on clearing backlogs is an obvious starting point, as without that local planning authorities cannot move on. If much of this can be achieved in the next 12 months or so while the economy remains flat, resources can then start to be positioned to service the upturn when pent up demand from householders, investors and developers will inevitably lead to more planning applications being made.
A more progressive approach to setting planning application fees, targeted funding elsewhere (including that earmarked for Public Practice), and greater use of delivery-focussed planning performance agreements (PPA) in a rising market would yield far more income to help build capacity, hopefully without Councils’ having to make impossible choices about which front-line services to resource. A commitment to extending the Planning Skills Delivery Fund, or something similar, for longer and with larger amounts (possibly supplemented by private sector constitutions) would ensure that we don’t lose momentum if the backlogs aren’t sorted out, before an upsurge in economic activity works its way through to submission of more planning applications.
Building in capacity with greater certainty, is essential to addressing problems with low morale in the public sector, but it goes much further than that. Government must champion and recognise the key role of planners in providing for many of society’s most basic needs and confronting climate change head on.
The rhetoric is changing but a positive take on the role of planning must be integral to the messaging within a pro-growth policy agenda. The infamous comment in 2011 by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary at that time, that planning was a drag anchor on growth, and all the negative comments about planning and planners that subsequently followed from others, caused untold damage to the profession and how it has since been perceived. If our national leaders consistently talked in positive terms about the role of planners and property professionals, more and better quality people will want to work in the profession.
The consultancy sector’s ability to mobilise and its desire to assist local planning authority development management functions will vary, because of busyness on other work and the barriers presented by unwieldy and difficult procurement processes, especially for smaller businesses.
Out-sourcing of whole functions and term contracts are often the domain of the large corporates, but many more SMEs have the skills and capabilities to assist local planning authorities in lots of different ways by providing general, specialist or local-area resource.
Alongside our term contracts, for example, we are assisting more local planning authorities than ever, with advice on important major applications and appeals where we can offer experienced and specialist resource that local authorities don’t have access to. If development management officers are under pressure, there is unlikely to be relief at hand from policy colleagues with the onus on them to deliver up to update local plans; the private sector can play a part in plugging these gaps too.
On planning application projects, we work closely with senior officers to provide resources and fill skills gaps, with funding assistance secured by councils through PPAs. Our private sector experience and local or sector knowledge brings a lot more than staff resources to the table and combining that with what our local authority colleagues do well, has created some highly productive working relationships.
In the future, we hope part of this process will be to help build capability internally again, such that more authorities can deal confidently with the more complex schemes themselves or select a narrower range of specialist services to complement their own general development management resources.
Another example is where we provide Environmental Impact Assessment services and Reports including assistance with screening, scoping, review of Environmental Statements and drafting of conditions. We use our wider experience to help scope out (or down) information requirements to only that which is necessary as well as assessing the completeness of Environmental Impact Statements and Reports. A lack of staff resource, experience or confidence can cause some local planning authorities who are faced with a plethora of consultee responses to err on the side of caution, ask for information that might not be necessary, thereby increasing workloads and causing avoidable delay. We can and are plugging that gap. Heritage is another example where we provide services where there may be no conservation officers, or where expert support is needed on the larger more complex planning and listed building applications. A growing area in this regard is expert witness work on behalf of local planning authorities.
We are also seeing interest in our services to clear back logs in the form of job-lots of planning applications, many often small-scale, utilising small teams to process and manage large numbers quickly and effectively, before handing back decision-making to the local planning authority. We will expand upon some of these examples in future blogs to explore further how local planning authorities and the consultancy sector might work together, including one which looks specifically at the situation in Scotland.
The Government’s Building Capacity and Capability Programme is critical in that it starts to join the dots in setting out a longer-term plan to deal with by far and away the biggest issue holding the planning system back. Michael Gove used Tennyson’s words - “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” - to describe his approach to the way the nation needs to find space, develop and grow at the launch of the latest revision of the NPPF in December. The same could be said about what is required of Government and the planning and property professions, to put the right people and skills in place – and quickly - or else we will never find that space, develop or grow quickly enough to meet the economic and demographic demands we now face.
Header image: Better Queensway, Southend. Lichfields assisted Southend-on-Sea City Council in dealing with reserved matters submission for a mixed use development, including up to 1,760 new dwellings.