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Why planning needs better outcome measurement

By Tom Kenny, Policy Officer at the RTPI

Planning is about so much more than the number of applications approved and the speed of processing them. So why is this the focus of how we assess it? RTPI is commissioning research aimed at producing a toolkit which can demonstrate a wider range of outcomes.

Why limited outcome measurement is bad for planning and places

While various attempts have been made to change this, the assessment and monitoring of planning across the UK and Ireland still focuses mainly on a limited set of mostly process-based outcomes. How many applications are received and approved? What proportion are processed within target time periods or overturned at appeal? This is understandable given the difficulty of measuring broader outcomes and the political focus on housing supply. However, it is a very limited conception of what planning should set out to achieve. Furthermore it damages both placemaking and support for development.

It is often said about organisations that you are what you measure. If this is the case, it is not surprising that local authorities with limited resources and a focus on numbers and speed are shifting attention towards facilitating development control at the expense of proactive placemaking.

Support for new development is predicated on trust that it will deliver value for the area. For most people, the fact that new housing or employment units are being delivered near them is not enough to win them over. Instead planners should be able to appeal to local people by highlighting the wide range of social, economic and environmental benefits new development can bring. If councillors could point to improvements in areas like social infrastructure, biodiversity and housing affordability this might even make new development a vote winner.

And this could scale up to the national scale - what if rather than focusing on an abstract housing target national governments could communicate the value their new policies have delivered in a multitude of ways to connect with different aspirations.

This is not to say it isn’t important for local authorities to deliver an efficient service for applicants. We should also celebrate success in this area, for example, local authorities in England are processing a higher number of applications with a larger proportion of them meeting target times. But this isn’t all that we require planning to do. Not only does it fail to adequately incentivise wider placemaking, but it has a knock on effect of making new development less popular and therefore more difficult to deliver.

What would better outcome measurement look like?

The planning system should be assessed on the outcomes it is designed to deliver. In Scotland for example,  outcomes in the Planning (Scotland) Act include meeting housing needs, improving health and wellbeing, increasing the population of rural areas, improving equality, meeting climate change targets, and improving biodiversity. In Wales planning performance can be linked to helping meet the well-being goals of the Future Generations Act. England and Ireland also have a number of aspirations for planning which are not currently monitored on a systematic basis.

This is no easy task, indeed previous research in this area has often stopped short of offering solutions, highlighting the scale of the challenge. While it is easy enough to report on how many planning applications were received and approved, it is more difficult to assess broader outcomes. Indeed in some areas it may be virtually impossible to unpick the impact of planning. However, as described above, problems with current approaches mandate a move towards a more satisfactory solution.

Furthermore, advances in planning technology and the availability of data bring new opportunities to measure a wider set of outcomes. It is time to start exploring what can be done to improve the way we measure outcomes rather than continue to focus on the problems that currently exist.

How is the RTPI supporting this?

The RTPI is commissioning research designed to identify the most important outcomes of planning in each UK nation and feasible ways of measuring them. We will ask suppliers to explore the situation in each nation and come up with practical steps towards a scalable form of local outcome measurement.

This isn’t the first step - there is lots of great practice going on already. We expect the project will collect ideas from what is already being done as much as it will propose new approaches. One of the main things I’m excited about is seeing what each nation can learn from the other. It will also be interesting to see the varying aspirations for planning in different nations.

This work will build on previous RTPI work on the Value of Planning. The Value of Planning rubbished the idea that planning is a burden on the economy - demonstrating the many economic benefits of planning. Now we can build on this to move beyond a focus on economic value and look at the outcomes of planning in as broad a sense as possible.

This is a difficult project but it’s important. It won’t solve this problem but we hope it will take important steps towards a better approach, highlight the value of outcome measurement, and open up new work programmes on further improvements.

And we’re clearly not alone in thinking this is an important problem to solve. This research is supported and co-funded by each of the governments of Scotland, Wales, and England, and the Office of the Planning Regulator in Ireland. With this level of buy-in, this project has a real opportunity to shape practice in the coming years.

You can read the Invitation to Tender for the research here and if you are thinking about bidding and have questions please get in touch. We are strongly encouraging bids from consortiums that can bring together expertise from different disciplines and reach across the UK and Ireland. 

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