Keeping control

Leading a busy development control team involves a host of duties but managers can take a series of steps to make sure that performance stays on track. Trevor Roberts explains.

Leadership: good management can help meet goals
Leadership: good management can help meet goals

If you are a development control manager or team leader, your job description will say your main responsibility is to "manage" development control. You will be answerable for development control performance and there will be staff for whom you have supervisory responsibility. You will also be expected to ensure quality and consistency of decision-making and to play your part in corporate management. The following tips, gleaned from 20 years of working with planning staff at every level, may help.

1. Your job is managing development rather than doing it. You get work done via staff whom you supervise, train, encourage and monitor. Aims are achieved via organisational procedures you set up and review, explicit prioritisation and workflow management. Do not underestimate your staff. If their work is not up to scratch, do something about it. You can gain a lot of satisfaction from the way your staff perform.

2. Allocate specific slots for signing off applications and fit other things round this. Signing off delegated applications is probably the most important thing you do. You are exercising a crucial authority that must be carried out in a thorough, consistent, considered and transparent manner. It is not something to be rushed between all those important meetings that fill your diary. Neither is it something to be left for a couple of days while you are away.

3. Hold regular team briefings but make sure they are kept short. Briefings are useful to keep staff up to speed, give them a chance to ask questions and provide a sense of cohesion. They are not especially participatory but are part of your communication role as a supervisor. If you want more generalised discussion sessions, problem-solving meetings or training periods, these need to be organised separately, because the way they work is quite different.

4. Do not have an open door. You may have an office but often you will be in an open-plan environment. Irrespective of this, you probably think you have an "open door" to your staff. But getting your undivided attention can be a real challenge for team members. You are there to handle their queries but you are not at their beck and call. Establish a time each day when you are available and ask staff to save their questions until then.

5. Delegate positively but do not allocate work as a matter of course. "I have six staff. Two of them I am quite happy to delegate virtually any work to, a couple I can pass on some work to but I am really worried about delegating any work to the others." Does this sound familiar? Delegation is a staff development tool. If you are not worried about giving work to someone, you are just allocating it, not delegating it. Positive delegation needs preparation. It never saves you time in the short term.

6. Manage all the development control process, including enforcement and support. The focus on government-monitored performance affects only the middle part of the development control process. You need to manage and monitor pre-application discussions and post-decision progress up to the point where a development can start on the ground. Neither stage is covered by government statistics. Related to this is concern over enforcement, both proactive and responsive. Development control support is an integral part of the service. You must manage it effectively and efficiently.

7. Establish specific mechanisms to ensure quality and consistency. Quality and consistency are vital alongside speed of decision-making. Set up specific quality control mechanisms. Hold staff discussions to consider awkward cases and establish guidelines on grey areas. Set up some kind of peer or external review of decisions. Procedural consistency is vital for all aspects of development control. Ensure that there are clear, systematically documented procedures, along with familiarisation, review and updating mechanisms.

8. Stay in touch with politics and corporate concerns. It is your job to ensure that development control does not go out on a limb. Keep in touch with corporate concerns and political priorities, which can sometimes conflict with the statutory framework. Anticipate potential problems via corporate and political antennae. Use your knowledge, ingenuity and creativity to support rather than obstruct corporate priorities, but explain clearly, constructively and early where these are overambitious in relation to the statutory planning constraints.

9. Promote members of your team to each other and those outside it. Show appreciation when it is deserved. Make sure positive comments are immediate, specific and work-related - not to be confused with general affability. Promote your team when it achieves things and defend it against unwarranted criticism. Report back about justified criticism and discuss how to respond to it.

10. Make sure you have access to good management training. You will be up to the mark professionally, but you also need to be on the ball as a manager. Management is a set of concepts and techniques that can be learned - via training courses if possible, otherwise by reading. You will need particular training in personal effectiveness and in the supervisory aspects of management. Grab any opportunities for this type of training.

- Trevor Roberts is consultant director of Trevor Roberts Associates and was RTPI president in 1998-99.

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