Martin Hutchings, Planning Advisory Service
Since the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) launched the Planning Quality Framework (PQF) late last year over 100 councils have signed up. PAS is sending out regular quarterly performance reports and councils are using them to identify improvement opportunities, review resources, evidence the effect of previous improvement/change decisions, and use as a baseline for collaboration projects and regional working.
What is the PQF?
The PQF helps a council understand how much investment via planning applications it manages, how it’s using resources, what its customers think and how it goes about delivering successful development. It also delivers all of the 8/13 week statistics; just in a more useful way. It’s free to use and you can ‘test before you invest’. Here are some of the ways the PQF is helping councils understand their planning service in fresh and more useful ways.
‘We’ve traditionally focused on PS1&2 returns as the only way to assess performance – the PQF goes a long way to highlight what good really is.” - Leigh Palmer, Eastbourne Borough Council
The value of planning
The PQF is helping planning departments articulate their value. Being quick and efficient is expected, but demonstrating what quick and efficient translates to in terms of attracting and sustaining investment moves the role of planning centre-stage. Here’s what this looks like in a council’s PQF performance report:
The PQF allocates an ‘investment value’ to each application the council is managing. The values are estimates and weighted to account for regional variation. We're refining this with the help of councils and the private sector.
This is more than a useful reminder of ‘how important planning is’. There is a picture of planning being unappreciated by many across the council – including those making decisions about investment and resources. It demonstrates the impact that a properly resourced planning department can have on investment via development.
How much of our time are we giving away?
'Waste' is an emotive word, instead PAS talks about the ‘work council’s do for free’. Withdrawn and re-submitted applications are a fact of life, but do planners really understand the time and resources they use up? The PQF shows how much work is withdrawn, how much is done for a £0 fee, and then (here’s the kicker) how many days of a planner’s work this represents. For some councils this can add up to two or three full time equivalents’ worth of time annually. Take a look at how the picture builds up:
How much work is withdrawn?
On the left is the %age of withdrawn applications. Percentages aren’t always helpful (e.g. '15%’ could mean 50 applications or 500), so the right hand side helps you understand the scale of the issue by showing the number of applications withdrawn per 1,000 applications decided.
How much work do planning departments do for free?
The left side shows how much work is done for free (excluding tree and heritage applications). The right side shows the equivalent days of planner work delivered free of charge. 200 days = 1 FTE.
For the most part, fees do not cover the cost of processing so a withdrawn application represents a cost to the point that it is withdrawn. Add the potential for a ‘free go’ and the picture worsens. Instead of accepting this as inevitable or ‘part of the game’, PQF councils, armed with this new information are asking: Why are applications getting withdrawn? What type? How many occur at the request of the council? What does our developer community really think?
Feedback: ALL customers, EVERY application
The best part of the PQF. Councils no longer have to rely on one-off/annual surveys that tell them little more than their customers are ‘quite satisfied with the service’. PQF councils email a survey to a variety of customers (agents, applicants, neighbours that commented), and now understand what a different customers think about how the same application was handled.
The surveys generate feedback that can be acted on by asking four specific questions about individual applications: Were we helpful? Did we use information well? Did we use time well? Did our decision make sense?
“For us the PQF is the ‘off the shelf’ answer to getting a high quality customer feedback loop built directly into the business of delivering the planning service”. - Delegate feedback from PQF launch event
Here's how developers and neighbours scored their council’s service:
Note particularly how positive the scores are from neighbours on approved developments, and the scores of developer’s on those cases refused.
What do the council's customers think about the quality of information they get?
These two examples blow most customer survey results out of the water. This is richer and more useful, especially as this data can be split out to an application type or category of development.
Planning practice: How do we negotiate and deliver the best outcomes?
The PQF will help identify what adds value and quality to developments and the outcomes they achieve. At the moment this is more about councils sharing good ideas than gathering and analysing data. One council has put together a programme of design training for councillors based on a ‘Building for Life’ toolkit created by a council elsewhere who were using it to judge the influence of their pre-application and planning service on good design.
“Our design training is giving councillors a vocabulary to talk about design” - Ray Crawford Hastings Borough Council
They created a checklist of design considerations for new developments and linked elements to planning policy. This will not only help councillors learn how to assess the design aspects of applications, but also give them a vocabulary to talk about design at committee and/or when engaging the community. You can read more about it here.
PQF is risk-free – ‘Test before you invest’
“Most importantly [The Quality Framework] shows in a short easy to understand report the current state of the service, provides comparison with others, and an early warning of changes which impact on customers.” - Martin Vink, Development Control Manager, Ashford Borough Council
The PQF shows many different aspects of performance, and sometimes, some things are not that pretty. Some councils would rather not know what they look like than risk being ‘exposed’ in some way. However, PAS are more than happy for councils to join the framework, receive a report in confidence and if they’re unhappy or feel that the report exposes them in some way to criticism, PAS won’t offer their data to anyone else to benchmark against.
The future = Relaxation, collaboration, devolution
The PQF remains an integral part of the Planning Advisory Service’s support for councils. PAS believe that it will have a large role in any future relaxing of the rules for ‘well performing’ councils and if local fee setting materialises. PAS are also working with collaborating groups of councils - the PQF is useful as a baseline for improvement work and a basis for working on common approaches to delivering planning across geographical areas. This is coming to the fore as the devolution and core cities agendas gain momentum.
PQF - What’s next?
Over the coming months PAS be running ‘so what?’ events where they will be meeting up with PQF councils and helping them understand what their reports are telling them and working with colleagues on improvement and change ideas. They will also be asking where next councils would like to take the framework.
Join the growing number of councils getting value from the PQF – go to www.qualityframework.net or drop Martin a line:
Martin Hutchings is the PAS Improvement Manager. This blog originally appeared on the PAS website on 24 July 2015.