Turnarounds set an example for others

Reading and Canterbury planners have found the key to success in dealing with major applications, reports David Dewar.

If you are a development control case officer working in Canterbury, you are unlikely to get many straightforward applications.

The Kent cathedral city and surrounding district has more than 3,000 listed buildings, three world heritage sites, 100 conservation areas and a massive archaeological heritage, not to mention a stretch of coastline and extensive areas of flood plain. So it is no surprise that the planning department has not always met Best Value indicators, particularly for processing large applications.

But recently the Canterbury City Council planning team has seen a major improvement in performance in processing large schemes. Performance improved from 23 per cent of major applications processed within 13 weeks in 2001-02 to 57 per cent in 2004-05. Its efforts are highlighted in one of a series of case studies on improving performance launched by the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) this month.

The council is mindful of the need to meet development control targets.

But in this sensitive environment, its planning service has always focused on seeking quality in planning applications as well as speed of outcome.

That made a blanket 80 per cent target unrealistic. Planners welcomed the government's decision to split development control targets between major, minor and other applications as a better indicator of varying workloads.

There were other pressures at Canterbury. A consultants' report had concluded that the planning service was under-resourced at a time when the number of applications was climbing - from 1,872 in 1998-99 to 2,223 in 2002-03. Some of these were major schemes. They included the Whitefriars city centre development, a huge project that consumed a lot of time.

Since staff knew that major applications would generally take a long time because of their complexities, a relaxed view was sometimes taken about processing them. In some ways this was no problem. The council had a good working relationship with developers because it took time to make sure that things were being processed properly and engaged in constant dialogue.

But the trigger for a rethink came when the council was named and shamed for poor performance in processing major applications. This raised the profile of development control in the council and drew councillors' attention to the causes of under-performance. Local press coverage put extra pressure on the local authority to be seen to be doing something. From that point, it started to implement a series of measures to recover the situation.

First, it handed out information leaflets during pre-application discussions to explain the process of submitting applications for major developments.

Then a developer's forum was set up, meeting every six to nine months.

These meetings allowed the parties to go through issues and exchange information.

The planning service set up a customer service contact centre (see panel, below), cutting down on administrative time for planners.

Following an analysis of its internal systems, the planning service resolved that applicants should get everything right before the application was submitted. Using planning delivery grant cash, the council invested in extra staff. Consultants working with the team on rolling contracts were important in adding extra capacity to the service to deal with surges and appeals.

A specialist major development adviser was appointed to engage with applicants in the early stages of their schemes, providing a point of contact and continuity in dealing with the application. The council introduced a timetable for dealing with cases, which is sent to the applicant and then signed and returned. This shows the various stages needed to deal with an application such as public consultation, assessment, negotiation, report writing and prospective committee dates.

The main outcomes of this programme of action were:

- The cumulative effect of improved performance over four years has increased staff motivation and job satisfaction.

- Grant awards of £200,000 in 2003-04, £479,000 in 2004-05 and £416,000 in 2005-06 could be invested in the ongoing service improvement.

- Customer satisfaction increased from 86 per cent in 2000-01 to 89 per cent in 2003-04.

- The developer forum opened an important channel of communication between the planning service and developers.

Canterbury found that development control targets were initially a driver for change. But it recognises the danger that targets become the sole focus of the planning team because they are linked to money. The authority is working hard to avoid this syndrome by ensuring that the service remains focused on quality of outcome as well as speed of turning around planning decisions. "It is partly a question of getting as much done up front as you can," says Kim Bennett, head of development services.

Extra resources bring their own burden. Having won grant money, the service now depends on this higher level of funding and it will need to be matched if or when the grant is discontinued. Constant monitoring is needed to keep performance up on major applications. "It is a delicate tightrope," says Bennett. "The number of major cases is fairly low, so you only need four or five to go pear-shaped to bring the figures down. But at the moment we are doing okay."

Reading Borough Council's significant improvement in processing major applications over the past two years is also highlighted by the PAS. Reading had returned good overall figures but, like Canterbury, its problem was specifically with major applications in the "capital" of the booming Thames Valley region. In 2001-02 the council decided 73 per cent of all applications in eight weeks. But when the figures were split in 2002-03, they showed that it achieved only 31 per cent of decisions on major applications in 13 weeks.

"This is an area of fast economic growth so we have a lot of complex applications," explains David Breeze, planning manager in charge of implementation.

"The problem is that the major applications category goes from ten houses to 100,000m2 of offices. It is a very unstable group of application types. What you can achieve depends largely on what volume of cases you receive in a quarter."

One particular difficulty that Reading planners uncovered was that applications were entering the system without comprehensive supporting information.

They also found that applicants were often reluctant to spend time and resources in the pre-application stage, even though it could speed up the process. So the council moved towards a managed pre-application discussion process to avoid drip-feeding of information at the application stage.

It decided to become more proactive about setting out its expectations on timescales to applicants, rather than trying to fit in with their requirements. Managers took the view that a more focused time management regime was required for the benefit of both the council and of applicants.

A third area of focus was planning obligations. The council wanted to make it clearer for applicants what levels of financial and other contributions would be likely to be sought.

As part of a package of measures, the planning team published detailed supplementary guidance on planning obligations to make the process more transparent and faster. A revised section 106 legal agreement process was introduced, under which applicants were encouraged to submit heads of terms of the agreement with their application so that work could start as early as possible.

Reading issued a planning application checklist to agents explaining the revised performance targets, the requirements for supporting information for an application and the opportunities for pre-application discussions.

It revised its delegated powers scheme and a timetable was issued outlining the key milestones along the 13-week major application process (see table, above). This gave planners a clear framework for identifying points in the application process towards which they should be working.

A service level agreement was negotiated with the in-house legal team to ensure that section 106 agreements are delivered according to the timetable, speeding things up on the legal front. The council is now drawing up a supplementary planning document on validation of applications.

In just a year, Reading became a top-quartile performer on all types of applications. Customer satisfaction has improved and more applications are now being submitted with the necessary supporting information. Planning delivery grant awards of £203,000 in 2003-04, £501,000 in 2004-05 and £338,466 in 2005-06 have proved crucial for the service. The money has been used to fund additional staff in other departments to provide planning-related legal and valuation expertise.

Employing contract staff when needed has allowed a more flexible approach to staff management to deal with peaks and troughs in workload. Thanks to the grant, Reading has been able to retrain staff, upgrade computer systems and employ specialist advisers on matters such as urban design and ecology.

However, things have not always run smoothly. Some applicants have expressed a preference to continue negotiating over a longer period of time than that set out in the timetable if it leads to permission rather than refusal within the target timescale. The council does not accept this as justification for delaying determination. But unavoidable procedural difficulties or the emergence of further material considerations may justify timetable revisions. Each case is judged on its merits.

Difficulties sometimes arise where applicants are unable to complete section 106 agreements on time. Where delay is seen as unavoidable, the timetable is relaxed in the interests of customer care. Otherwise, applicants are advised to withdraw and resubmit their application to avoid refusal.

On several occasions applications have been refused when a legal agreement has not been completed on time without explanation. Reading says this sends a clear message that national Best Value targets need to be owned by both the council and its customers.

But Breeze accepts that the service has to be sensible in its approach.

"With the best will in the world, you are not going to refuse something that you have done a great deal of work on simply because the legal agreement may go a few weeks past the deadline," he says. "So there are difficult decisions to be made. It is a matter of being sensitive and not losing sight of what you are trying to achieve."

CANTERBURY: CUSTOMER SERVICE CONTACT CENTRE

When Canterbury's planning service was given more resources, it made a conscious decision to open a customer service contact centre to cut officers' time spent on administration and increase the time spent on actual planning work.

"A lot of staff time was being taken away just answering calls," recalls head of development services Kim Bennett. "Local people would get to know particular officers and ring them to ask basic things like whether their property is in a conservation area."

The council invested in training for the centre, focusing on recruiting people with customer service as well as technical backgrounds. "It is a big issue for local authorities because some people are good at answering the phone to the public and others are not," says Bennett. A team of four was recruited and trained intensively for a month before the service went live.

It has succeeded in reducing the pressure on planning officers. Development control is still called on from time to time to deal with complicated queries, but on the whole professional officer time has been freed up.

The centre has also received positive feedback from the public and agents satisfied that their queries are being responded to immediately.

READING: EXAMPLE OF MAJOR APPLICATION TIMETABLE DAY MILESTONES 0 Valid application submission with heads of terms of section 106 legal agreement. 5 Start of 21-day consultation period. Legal services instructed to prepare draft section 106. 14 Letter to applicant identifying any outstanding issues allowing 14 calendar days to submit further information. 26 End of statutory consultation period. 28 Date for first submission of outstanding information by applicant. 33 Further letter to applicant detailing any minor amendments or further information required in response to consultations, appraisal and additional information, allowing five working days to submit. 40 Date for submission of any minor amendments and further supporting information. 42 Start of further 14 days of consultation if considered necessary as a result of any minor amendments or further information. 54 Finalise recommendation for planning committee. All issues, including heads of terms of section 106 and conditions, to have been resolved or agreed. 56 Date for any final consultation responses. 61 Committee report finalised with recommendation either to approve, subject to completion of section 106 agreement by day 90 with delegated authority to refuse if agreement is late, or refuse. 77 Planning committee considers application with officer update report if necessary. 78-90 If application is approved subject to completion of section 106 agreement, complete agreement and prepare decision notice. If application is refused, issue decision notice as soon as possible. 90 Last date for completion of section 106 agreement.


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