Councils needs clarity on performance gauge

Fleshing out the full meaning of the latest set of proposed government planning reforms is not easy. The Growth and Infrastructure Bill, given its first reading last month, provides only part of the picture.

Decision-making: some councils do not meet targets. alancleaver2000 pic
Decision-making: some councils do not meet targets. alancleaver2000 pic

Thanks to Department for Communities and Local Government background guidance on the bill, and planning minister Nick Boles' appearance in front of the Commons select committee, the detail of what the government is proposing is becoming clearer in parts. But critical aspects of the changes are still shrouded in mystery.

For example, we now know that the government does not envisage placing many councils in "special measures" for poor planning performance, and those that are sanctioned will remain there for no more than a year. We have also learned that the intended penalty for poorly performing councils is that they will surrender decision-making on major applications, plus the fee, to the Planning Inspectorate. But, critically, we still don't know exactly how the government will define poor performance, as the bill says the communities secretary will spell this out at a later date.

Ministers have said that factors that they will look at will include both the speed and soundness of decision-making. But they haven't said which measures of speed they will use, or what proportion of decisions a local authority would have to see overturned at appeal for the government to judge them to be unsound decision-makers.

The tables of "poor performers" that we have published in this issue (see News Analysis, p4) and in the previous edition have shown that the number of councils that are among the very worst performers on more than one measure are very scarce.

Only one local authority - Ribble Valley Borough Council - featured in all three of the last edition's tables, which covered of the 25 most overruled decision-makers, the 25 slowest decision-makers (all applications) and the 25 slowest decision-makers (major applications only) in 2011/12.

The tables that we publish in this issue, showing the lowest-scoring decision-makers for determining major and minor applications within 13 weeks, feature many names that did not appear in any of last week's tables. So it's clearly going to be very hard for ministers to justify sanctions on the grounds of poor performance across the board.

Instead, it seems more likely that they will have to stipulate that poor performance on grounds of either speed or soundness will lead to a spell in special measures. This greatly expands the number of councils who will now be worrying that they will be vulnerable to the new provisions.

It also increases the potential controversy surrounding the special measures proposal, as it raises of the prospect of authorities with exemplary records at appeal being sanctioned because of slowness, and fast-acting councils being put in special measures because of a poor record at appeal. Town halls will not be reassured that a fair performance system is in place until ministers are able to clarify their exact criteria.

Richard Garlick, editor, richard.garlick@haymarket.com.


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