Our first benchmark of 2021 is underway, with somewhere between 20 and 30 councils working with us to model costs, resources and income. We hope to be able to share results later this year.
Summary - how does it work?
Every benchmark is a collaborative activity. Some people might want a particular focus on validation, others on the way experts contribute their views via the consultation process. Similarly, some people going into the process clear how they intend to use the results and others are doing it as a general healthcheck or as a snapshot they can refer to in the future.
For these reasons a group benchmark can feel a bit like a negotiated compromise. It can't be all things to all people, and we begin by feeling out interested parties with some questions around scope and depth. These lead to "The Benchmark Rules" - a framework which explains what the core benchmark is, what's involved and how we all agree to treat the edges of a planning service and how to treat corporate costs. This year in 2021 we have the additional complexity of Covid - we want to understand the impact but we don't want it to produce entirely skewed results.
The rules this year are ambitious (reflecting the need to create a baseline pre reform)
- Scope is wide: DM, policy, enforcement, monitoring, support, technical and professional advice, stat cons (in-house)
- Datasets are for three years (so we can see pre-covid)
- Local plan is in scope (this is hard to do properly, so the benchmark will take three years of cost and activity as "the normal run of things" across the cohort)
- Everyone commits to the basic benchmark
- Optional follow-up some people can go deeper into their area of interest (either by themselves for a local need or in groups to explore an issue)
To build the cost benchmark we need councils to provide four sources of data, and where relevant provide resource data in cost terms (rather than headcounts or grades / job descriptions). The five data sources are
- Costs about the routine service. Mostly this is about staff costs (broken down into the sort of tasks they perform) but also some basic costs about ICT and background on enforcement allegation numbers.
- Costs about the local plan - we are building a summary of what people are buying (or making) to support their local plan
- The "back office" database of planning applications (to derive data about workloads, outcomes and variation over time)
- Data about income (where this isn't in the planning application database - eg PPA income) over three years
We are excited to be doing a relatively large benchmark, which will be interesting by itself but could lead to an improvement in the conversation with Government about how things work "out there" and how reforms could be supported and delivered smoothly.
The benchmark is delivered to a cohort working together. Once the benchmark starts we won't let people join it because it hampers progress. The benchmark is currently OPEN.
|Week commencing||Tasks||Your input|
|03/05/21||Decide whether to join||Yes / No|
|03/05/21||Review templates and data requirements||Q&A|
|10/05/21||Cohort 1: collate the data and submit||Business manager (costs) and Technical lead (database) 4 days|
|17/05/21||Cohort 2: collate the data and submit||Business manager (costs) and Technical lead (database) 4 days|
|24/05/21||Review the data. Decide on topics.||Use data as base for conversation with colleagues. Creative thinking.|
|Early June||Share with MHCLG||Help with conversation. What have we learned? What does this mean for reform?|
|Mid June||"Deep dives" and topic papers||Creative thinking and review.|
The Benchmark Rules
The rules for the 2021 Benchmark are not yet fixed. The draft rules are as follows:
Data sharing, governance and decisions
- The benchmark is being funded my our colleagues at MHCLH so they can understand the costs and incomes of planning departments. A detailed cost and income model will be shared with them at various stages of the benchmark, along with a report that hightlights what we have learned.
- Part of the benchmark will generate information about performance, including time taken to perform the steps of determining applications and data about withdrawn and refused applications. Members of the benchmark can use this comparative data, perhaps taking information from it to public forums but will not identify each other by name. Aggregated or anonymised information about performance will be shared with MHCLG where relevant.
- The benchmark will have a small steering group of members who will arbitrate and make decisions in the best interest of progress and commonsense.
- We will also have topic "captains" to lead discussions with MHCLG and ourselves to flesh out what we have learned and what might happen next.
Benchmark first principles
- Councils are complex organisations
- The goal is to arrive at an "apples to apples" comparison as best we can
- Attempting to get to 100% perfect leads to frustration and delay - without roughly right results we cannot begin to understand and act.
Routine cost data (mostly staffing)
Employee cost data
- Only cost data is provided to the benchmark. There are no GDPR implications.
- Costs are to be provided as direct cost of employment (salary, ER NIC, pension)
- Where employees are contractors or agency the cost is simply cost paid.
- Where council employees are providing their services via an SLA (eg centralised admin or highways DM) you should use the cost of the SLA, unless you suspect it's wrong in which case estimate salaries / inputs
- There is no time recording, and the proportions applied to each category or function are estimates. This is imperfect, and where some members do use time recording we may do some comparisons.
- Employees working on the local plan are excluded from this bit of the benchmark. See below.
- Employees working on other policy documents are included in this bit of the benchmark.
- Employees supported by CIL or Section 106 are excluded from the benchmark, as are developer contributions themselves [this might be subject to a separate and more specific study]
- The goal is to include those people in-house who routinely contribute to the planning service (only).
Local Plan model
Local plan modelling
- This is difficult! (which is why we haven't done it for years). Local plan is in scope now because of the changes proposed in the planning white paper. We need to understand the status quo to be able identify common costs / opportunities.
- Other policy documents are not being broken down, just local plan (which is the bit that contains housing numbers) and "other"
- Each member will be at a different stage. Some expensive (issues and options), others less so (post examination)
- Also some councils will have bought evidence bases or particular pieces of policy work in, others will have made it themselves. This matters and is worth thinking about carefully.
- Over a three year window:
- What did you make? (we will provide some categories)
- How did you buy it? (in house / bought in / hybrid)
- How much did it cost?
- A three year model should add up to your (policy staff cost x 3) + all the invoices
By this method we hope to summarise the inputs and costs into a variety of local plans at various stages of production. We will need something else to explain what each plan is seeking to achieve - some are seeking to delivery large and ambitious changes and others are quite incremental and small in scale.
Alongside the costs model we will together be working up a way of describing and sizing local plans.
Planning application database
Over the years we have built quite a sophisticated way of analysing planning applications. We'll try to do the bulk of the work for you using a process of "mapping" from how you label things to a common standard.
You give us all applications received (not determined!) between 1st April 2018 and 31st March 2021. Because the process is automated the column names need to be precise, but we give you a template to follow. Anything we don't understand we will come back to you and find out more.
For those people that have a database (or crystal reports) view into the back-end of their applications system this is usually straightforward. Some departments only ever look at their data through data entry screens and their ICT is outsourced - in these situations it can be more of a challenge.
Data about income (that isn't in the application database)
Data about planning application fees (and therefore income) will be taken from the application database. Many places include pre-application advice as a type of application and keep it in the same places, but some maintain a separate spreadsheet. Similarly many places keep a seperate record of planning performance agreements (PPAs).
Where information is not already provided in the applications database, you will need to be able to summarise incomes for 2018-21. It's worth checking:
- Preapplication advice
- Planning performance agreements
- Site briefs or other more extended pieces of pre-application work