Performance against arbitrary deadlines doesn't deliver a high quality service

My first reaction, on seeing that my team was the lowest scoring English council for determining applications within 26 weeks (and that we had also sneaked into the 25 lowest scoring authorities for determining major applications), was to feel disappointed and embarrassed.

Then I stopped to think clearly. Until 2008 we performed very highly against national 8 and 13 week deadlines. Fantastic! Well, no, it wasn't fantastic. Why was such ostensibly high performance generating such a high volume of complaints? Why was our Chief Executive and our Members so dissatisfied with the service we were providing? 

The answer is because high performance against arbitrary deadlines doesn't deliver a high quality service: over a third of our decisions were being made on days 55 and 56. Many of those decisions were refusals and withdrawals, forcing applicants back around through the application process a second and sometimes even a third time. Many of the approvals were subject to long lists of conditions to be discharged that forced applicants back into the system for a second time but enabled a decision to go out within time.

Now I look at where we are today: approx 90% of applications are approved first time through the system (compared to a national average approval rate of 73%), and officers endeavour to make decisions on the earliest date possible, not the latest date before the deadline, and with a reduced number of conditions.  We have conversations with developers and with Ward Members, Parish Councils and other local community representatives and often encourage all parties to meet to resolve concerns about proposals. Numbers of complaints have fallen significantly and our Chief Executive and Members, whilst not totally happy, are certainly much happier with how the planning team is delivering on workload.

Yes, speed of decision-making is important to all developers but in my experience the majority of developers, when asked, would describe "speed" as being an approval within a timescale that suits the progress of their development, not a refusal or a forced withdrawal within 8 weeks, 13 weeks or 6 months.  Most householders want the quickest approval possible and don't want to wait 8 weeks.  Most major developers know that they will need to spend time working with local communities if their applications are to be recommended for approval. 

To these ends, internally, we are not as driven by such misleading national deadlines. Our case officers now focus on keeping applications moving at all times, maintaining dialogues with developers and communities, and reaching the earliest recommendation of approval possible for each application.

I know that we don't always achieve the speed or quality of service that we would like to deliver and some difficult challenges remain as yet unresolved, not least the case officer to workload ratio. However, a single statistic on performance against a 6 month deadline says nothing helpful about the direction we have taken or the achievements we have made so far.
For a publication representing the professional world of planning and with a focus on supporting the best possible planning outcomes your article is very disappointing and reflects badly on the profession. A more sophisticated analysis of the information you reported on would have been more befitting your publication.
Yours sincerely

Robert Weeks CMCIEH  
Head of Environment and Planning
Stratford on Avon District Council

The editor replies: With the tables, we have used available statistics to show which councils score lowest against the broad criteria that planning minister Nick Boles has said will be used to distinguish poorly performing councils, which are speed of decision-making and the extent to which decisions get overturned at appeal. These are the government’s criteria, not our own. We’ve focussed on low scorers because they are the councils that the government has said that applicants will be able to bypass. However, until the government provides more precise criteria, it will be impossible to say with certainty which councils are most at risk of losing powers.

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