Slow councils damage image of planning

I write as a former head of planning to express my dismay at the performance of the authorities highlighted in the last two issues of Planning.

They are hugely damaging to the image of planning and they give wonderful ammunition to its enemies. For these councils the Prime Minister and Chancellor are right when they say that planning is an enemy of enterprise.

Why are these councils so slow? Most other councils perform acceptably and it is not obvious that the named councils face exceptional challenges. In truth most minor and household applications are acceptable as submitted (If you think they are not you need better guidelines and a less picky attitude).

Dealing with such applications is therefore a simple matter of registration, consultation and decision. Most could be determined in 4-5 weeks. Major applications are more complex, but you get more time.

There will of course be a number of reasons for the poor performance of these councils. These will include an anti development culture (reflecting the nimby views of members and electors), poor organisation and inadequate resources. 

In the end a lot of the problems stem from the lowly position and the poor pay of planners in many councils. Many planners get little more than the average wage. The head of planning, if such a person can be identified, may well occupy an obscure position in a sprawling directorate and be paid less than a primary school head teacher. You get what you pay for.

I agree with Robert Weeks that the target regime has been gamed and often lead to a reduction of service. But I also agree that some form of sanction is required to raise standards. The best measure is customer satisfaction as this would encompass speed and quality of advice and decision.

It would be a simple matter to ask every applicant to rate the service on a 5 point scale and to ask them for their comments. If this were allied to the sticks and carrots of the old planning delivery grant regime it would be a powerful engine for improvement and would secure better support for council planning teams.

Nigel Allen

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