Careers Advice: Boosting productivity in planning

Written by: Martin Hutchings
Published on: 3 Apr 2017

planners from West Suffolk

Managers overseeing development management teams in planning departments are currently facing a number of challenges.

Key amongst them include: How do I achieve good service and ongoing improvement within the budget I’ve got? How do I structure and organise a productive planning team? What effect will the proposed 20 per cent increase in planning fees have? How productive should I expect my team to be? 

To answer these questions, managers need to understand the resources at their disposal, how these are currently used and what happens as a result. The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) has done lots of work helping councils understand resources, productivity and the relationship between the two.

Here’s quick run-down of some of the things we’ve learned. In development management, ‘productivity’ is usually defined as some sort of cases-per-year-per-planner equation. But it’s only when you start to look behind this number that you can do things like improving the performance of the system, the happiness of the individuals delivering it and the customer experience.  

To keep things simple, we help councils define resources as: fees from applications and income from discretionary work (e.g. pre-application, planning performance agreements) tracked over time. Opposite are the direct costs of delivering the service – the people costs.  

When you combine this information with some benchmarking know-how and a bit of insight, you can produce a whole raft of resource and performance information.

Here’s three examples of how it can help you make better decisions:

1. Understanding variety: It’s important to understand what sort of applications form your work. In most places the most work (small developments) accounts for the least fee income/and vice versa. Yet many departments are organised as if every development needs the same amount of resource/attention. When you know where the pressure points are, you can confidently make decisions about moving people away from the more routine work and onto the more complex strategic stuff. You can also change procedures to be less fussy about certain developments e.g. at validation or changing member call-in procedures if lots of resources are being taken up to service the planning committee.    

2. Using staff effectively: PAS has developed an understanding of what a reasonably staffed planning service looks like, and how long on average it should take to process different types of application from major down to trees and adverts. Knowing this, we turn the volume and variety of planning applications a council processes into a full time employee (FTE) number – the number of planners required to do the work. This enables places to understand more fully whether they are staffed at the right level, what a reasonable workload looks like, and what opportunities there are to make better use of resources.  

3. Processes and workflow: There are three simple things to keep in mind about processes. First, keep planning applications moving - applications spend most of their life in a queue with nothing happening. Ask yourself: is that validation requirement really a reason to stop working on this application/what’s stopping us issuing a decision straight after the consultation period? Secondly, double-handling and duplication are process poison – do you need to be so cautious on everything/can planners sign their own work off in some circumstances? Third, encourage your team to make small improvements all the time – by saving one minute of time on every application, you’ll save yourself two days of time per 1,000 applications you process.  

Conclusion: Improvement must be ongoing

We have been working with councils in this area for years. We are clear that improvement is not something that happens once, and it is best when it happens routinely rather than kicked-off by a project initiation process. There is a surprising amount of received wisdom about best practice that is just plain wrong, so we encourage councils to find out their facts and to keep checking them.  

Martin Hutchings is improvement manager at the Planning Advisory Service.

Pic shows Martin Hutchings with planners from West Suffolk