Critically consider the health of your Development Management service to kickstart your improvement plan
“We are currently working through a Development Management improvement plan linked to ensuring the ongoing efficient operation of the service and using the toolkit has really helped us focus on what areas require most attention. It has also acted as a great opportunity to celebrate what we do well. I would highly recommend it ” (David Atkinson, Director of Planning and Regeneration, Harborough District Council)
“We were delighted to help PAS to pilot the new toolkit. We have found it invaluable to help us prepare a Development Management improvement action plan. We will now be using PAS as a ‘critical friend’ to help us finalise the action plan and to ensure it delivers on the actions that have been generated through the toolkit work” (Andy Bates, Chief Executive, South Hams DC and West Devon BC)
“The toolkit has proved a great way for us to have a discussion about the health of our Development Management service. In some instances we have been reassured that we are providing a great service whilst in other instances we have been able to understand better where improvements can be made and to use the practical tips to enable that improvement to take place” (Brett Leahy, Head of Planning and Building Control, London Borough of Redbridge)
“We found the toolkit very helpful for carrying out a health check on our service. I would recommend that all Councils use the toolkit as part of their ongoing improvement work as it is an invaluable tool to help benchmark your Development Management service nationally” (Stuart Wingfield, Head of Development Management, Plymouth City Council)
This latest version of the PAS Development Management Challenge Toolkit updates the original version that was prepared in 2015. It aims to provide a ‘health check’ for Planning Authorities and act as a simple way to develop an action plan for improvements to their Development Management service. The themes covered are largely the same as the 2015 version but we have used the feedback from Councils who have used the toolkit to make it easier to use for local authority staff who have busy day jobs and therefore need a quick and easy reference point to enable them to focus in to specific areas where improvements can be made. This version has also been piloted on four Planning Authorities who have provided invaluable feedback on the practical use of the toolkit. A special thank you to: Plymouth City Council, London Borough of Redbridge, Harborough District Council and South Hams District Council / West Devon Borough Council.
Each section is designed to stand alone and there is no preferred order for running through each section. Therefore you can tailor your sessions to how they best meet the priorities for improvement in your own Development Management Service. Some themes will reappear in different sections to help you cover as many topics as you need. For example speed of decision making is raised in three separate sections – Performance Management, Political Leadership and Considering an Application – therefore the discussion can take place when any of those sections and being considered.
The format in each section is for you to consider statements defining what an excellent and poor Planning Authority looks like and then to consider some tips to improve performance. The purpose of defining poor and excellent is meant to be controversial and to stimulate debate within a Council. The tips will work for some Councils and not for others because every Council is different and therefore has different priorities for improvement. The tips are also aimed at getting Planning Authorities to think about solutions and to work through challenges in bite size ways rather than being overwhelmed by the problems it faces.
Is there a cost?
The toolkit is free to download and councils are welcome to use it themselves. Sometimes it is more effective to have someone external lead the process to prevent it becoming perceived to be the performance management of individuals. We have several experienced staff who can put together.
How to use it
For each section discuss where you feel your Council sits on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). If you disagree with one another (which you are likely to do) discuss why you have different views as perception is a really important factor in improving how things are done. Ultimately the final score is not as important as what you are going to do about it. However it is really important to write down why you have either agreed on a score or why you can’t decide on a score. This will help you to understand where you are as a service on the journey between poor and excellent and if you don’t write it down you will have no record of why you came to those conclusions.
Next look at the ‘top tips’ and actions you want to take from the session. Which tips are you going to take on board and which are you going to dismiss? – it is ok to say a tip is not for you as long as you know why. Then if you decide you want to take forward a tip decide how you are going to implement it. Some you simply need to do and others may involve outside support such as from PAS. Also consider what other actions have come out of the discussion. Encourage all staff taking part in the session to generate other ideas and actions to help you develop an action plan.
Finally decide what score you would like to be. It may seem obvious that you always will want to be a 5 (excellent) but this is not always the case as it depends on where you want to focus your priorities as a service. For example how important is monitoring performance to your service? All Planning Authorities will want to monitor speed and quality of decision making as these are the minimum benchmarks set by Government but you will then need to balance the time spent in collecting information about all areas of the Development Management process against the staff resources you have to deliver an excellent service. Only you will know whether you want to reach a 5 or whether you may be happy to be a 3 or 4. However again it is really important to write down why you have settled on a particular score.
Following pilot work on the toolkit each section usually takes about an hour to an hour and a half to complete. However the time you spend on each section very much depends on how much discussion and disagreement takes place – it will sometimes be shorter and sometimes longer. Also some sections are longer than others so there will inevitably be a difference in time spent on each.
When you have completed the sections that you feel are important to your service you should be in an excellent position to prepare your own action plan of improvement in the format that is appropriate for your organisation. However it is also really important to use the toolkit to reflect back on the things you are doing well and therefore do not need to change. Do not simply dwell on the negatives but celebrate success and promote best practice within your service. It is really important when Planning Departments are struggling with resourcing and workload presssures to celebrate with staff good practice and a job well done.
We have learned that no process is ever “fixed” and every Council has room to improve further. Let us know how you get on, and how this kit has helped. But before you begin here is some crucial advice we have taken from the most successful councils:
- In many projects there is a big gap between “the big idea” and the subsequent HR process of changing job descriptions and organisational structures. This gap can be reduced by involving the affected people in the redesign, and not treating it as part of the ongoing day job.
- There is no process that cannot be made stupid by treating it too narrowly. It is essential that everyone understands how the department works as a whole. Silo working, narrow targets and work being batched into trays is poison to a process.
- It is impossible to design out error. Almost every part of the Development Management process requires an assessment of risk and proportionality, and councils are often guilty of introducing sign-offs and double-checks after some kind of mistake. Doing ‘less’ will sometimes mean things are omitted that should not have been, and you need to find a corporate culture that understands (and forgives) the occasional error.
- We encourage councils to be bold and innovative, and you will find some challenges in the toolkit that encourage you to stop or drastically change some core tasks. This needs to be balanced against the support needs of the people who work for you. If you remove too much structure and support too quickly you might expose gaps in skills or confidence. You will need to acknowledge your staff as individuals and make judgements about how fast each is able to adapt.
Who is it for?
The toolkit is designed to help councils think properly and run a ‘health check’ of their service before taking on change and improvement work, whatever their circumstances or whatever is providing the stimulus for change. It is up to each Council to decide who leads on each section of the toolkit but there is a suggestion made at the beginning of each section on how the session should be run. it should always involve a range of staff who can make the changes happen that should always include staff at all levels of the service. It is unlikely to be effective if it is simply used by senior management who impose changes on staff. Equally it is unlikely to be effective if it is only used by officers who have no power to make changes. It should be discussed with as many staff as is practicable so that changes can be made from an informed position by people who understand their business. You may find it helpful to have an external facilitator, such as PAS, to help you discuss the issues that the toolkit raises, but equally you may want to nominate a member of your own staff to act as the facilitator. It will be particularly useful for:
Authorities designated/in danger of designation
- Identifying the things to stop doing to "get out the hole" and back on track with National Indicators
- Provides the structure for having sensible and realistic conversations about risk with leadership
- Helps with staff morale to recognise the areas of the service that are being run well
- Helps councils differentiate the "must do" vs “nice to have"
- Focuses on the big picture and maximising income/reducing cost
- Guards against complacency and can provide a stimulus to ‘shake things up’ every now and again involving officers & councillors
- A regular review helps keep things lean
- Complementing the cycle of learning, and keeping staff engaged and empowered to identify and effect change and improvement
- Reinforcing and understanding the culture/purpose of the service
Authorities that need specific support
- Enables Councils to focus on specific areas of their Development Management service where they are aware that improvement is needed but want help in identifying how that improvement can be made
Groups of councils preparing to collaborate
- Councils can often trip themselves up by failing to understand and appreciate differences in approach before combining processes. This toolkit helps draw out these differences so a common process can be agreed.
- It helps to draw out best practice across the councils that can be shared and celebrated
When to use the Toolkit
There are no hard-and-fast rules about using the Toolkit; it can be used as a sense-check or critical review for current ongoing improvement work, or as a means to stimulate thought and ideas to kick-start a new programme of change and improvement. It will work best where it is used as a ‘continuous improvement’ tool rather than for ‘one-off’ projects, and when used to engage staff and other stakeholders in the design of improvements rather than imposing it upon them.
Feedback suggests that councils intend to use the Toolkit as part of:
regular team meetings – working through the various sections in a priority order that makes best sense for the Council or concentrating on known problem areas.
team ‘away-days’ – many councils will take their team away for a day to plan changes and improvements and the Toolkit can provide a useful focus and structure.
focused, concentrated improvement work – 2 or 3 focused days working through areas of the Toolkit and creating an improvement programme.
geographical groups – facilitated sessions working through common issues and sharing good practice.
councillor engagement – the Toolkit has a specific section on political leadership, and covers the councillor role at each stage of the DM process (not just the committee).
The DM Challenge Toolkit documents (to download)
Download the DM Toolkit documents here:
- The full DM Challenge Toolkit
Click below to download the full toolkit.
- Performance Management
Click below to download Performance Management
- Financial Management
Click below to download Financial Management
- Workload Management
Click below to download Workload Management
- Processes, IT and Administration
Click below to download Processes, IT and Administration
- Political Leadership
Click here to download Political Leadership
- Team Management
Click here to download Team Management
Click here to download Training
- Pre applications
Click here to download Pre applications
- Receipt and Validation
Click here to download Receipt and Validation
- Consultation and Allocation
Click here to download Consultation and Allocation
- Considering an Application
Click here to download Considering an Application
- The Officer Report
Click here to download The Officer Report
- The Decision and Conditions
Click here to download The Decision and Conditions
- Monitoring and Enforcement
Click here to download Monitoring and Enforcement
Click here to download Appeals
Training on the toolkit
PAS has held training sessions on the toolkit, most recently at the PAS Chief Planners and Rising Stars Conference on 14th July 2022. The presentations give an introduction to the toolkit, a worked example and first hand experiences of using the toolkit from Epsom and Ewell, Uttlesford and South Hams / West Devon