Results from a special investigation into the operation of planning departments presented to the National Planning Forum his week suggests that the drive for creative strategic planning is being undermined by a preoccupation with performance and process.
The study, led by Andrew Wright and Karen Moore for POS Enterprises, was carried out through discussions with 51 heads of planning and senior planners from 48 authorities. It identifies conflicts between planning policy and committee decisions and a disproportionate amount of time and effort being spent on very detailed development control issues.
Their report calls for a shake-up of planning to boost the importance of the pre-application stage, engage planning committees more in developing policy and remove minor development from the system.
Maintaining performance in planning is "a significant preoccupation for many, requiring ongoing senior management attention", the study finds. Extra workloads and recruitment difficulties add to the strain placed on management, it adds.
Some participants in the study said the planning system has become too embroiled in very local issues and that senior officers "spend a disproportionate amount of time in responding to such local issues at the expense of more strategic and creative action".
The report concludes that the functional environment in which planning operates "creates a tendency for others to see it as negative or bureaucratic". It calls for a mindset "which sees the quality of outcome as the pre-eminent objective, with speed as important but not dominant".
This can be fostered, it suggests, by looking at how pre-application processes can shape quality development. "It requires developers and other players in the system to understand the importance of the pre-application stage and gear themselves to engage effectively with it," it says.
The study team calls for the removal of minor development from planning control, leaving the system to concentrate on the "demanding challenges" that the planning system faces from the government's reforms.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Planning Officers Society (POS) has revealed that development control case officers are under "extreme stress". A sample of 64 local authorities found that the caseload per officer ranged from 64 to 307 during the year ending 30 June 2004.
"This can be compared with the often quoted most reasonable caseload of 150 applications, excluding pre-application discussions, appeal work and other non-planning application related activity," the POS comments. Only six per cent of authorities in the survey had caseloads below this threshold and more than half had levels of more than 200 per officer.
"The survey findings reinforce the widely-held view that most planning officers in development control are working in a highly stressful environment," said Phil Kirby, chairman of the society's development control topic group. "The culture of maintaining performance against an increasing number of indicators, coupled with constant inspections, only compounds that stress."
Also this week, the ODPM released statistics highlighting the fact that councils are dealing with planning applications more swiftly. The latest planning performance checklist shows improvement in every category of application since the last figures.
In the year ending September 2004, local planning authorities determined an average of 55 per cent of major planning applications within 13 weeks and 65 per cent of minor planning applications and 81 per cent of other applications within eight weeks. These represent improvements of three, four and three percentage points respectively since the previous checklist.
Applications Caseload Survey and Planning Performance Checklist can be viewed via www.PlanningResource.co.uk.