Progressing Performance – RTPI Scotland Research

RTPI Scotland Intern Project Officer, Thomas Fleming, has been researching the performance and resourcing of the Scottish Planning Service.  This article outlines his key findings and conclusions.

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The planning service in Scotland has been improving, across a range of performance indicators. However, performance remains a difficult area to measure—the value and positive outcomes of planning are neither currently well-measured nor go hand-in-hand with internal performance measures. Continued support to planning authorities is essential to maintain the efficiency, economy and impact of the service.

In considering key performance indicators identified by the Scottish Government and Heads of Planning Scotland, and other outcomes and resourcing information the report highlights improvements in planning performance. Considering expected budgetary constraints, development pressure and debates about the future of planning resource allocation, the report calls for clear action to safe-guard resources while continuing to find innovative ways to raise revenue and improve services.

Current performance data indicates improvements in many areas of the service among mixed results—due to slippages in average major application processing times—and amid fairly steady application volume from 2013 to 2015.  There have been many positive developments. Specifically:

  • Local application processing times have continued to decrease from 2013. Approval rates remain high at 93.5%;
  • Progress has been made in concluding legacy cases (up 233% in Q4 2015, with a reduction in outstanding cases);
  • The use of processing agreements has increased by 92% from 2013/2014 to 2014/2015, along with the number of those decided within their agreed timescales;
  • The total proportion of decisions upheld in appeal before Local Review Bodies and Scottish Ministers has increased from 57% in 2013/2014 to 59% in 2014/2015, indicating improvement in the robustness of local planning authority decision-making; and
  • The total number of cases decided by Local Review Bodies and Scottish Ministers dropped by 7% between 2012/2013 and 2014/2015.

Development planning must be considered in addition to development management performance. Development planning data indicates that the majority of development plans remain on track. 83% of development plans are under 5 years old, averaging 3.15 years old, compared to 2004 when 70% were over 5 years old and one in five were over 15 years old. All Strategic Development Plans, which cover three quarters of Scotland’s population, have met their timescales. The average age of an SDP is 1.9 years old.

Encouragingly, work is continuing to standardise current performance methodologies whilst developing a more robust performance framework. Service improvement markers, for example, show that an average of 8 out of 12 proposed improvements are completed by authorities whilst the number incomplete or abandoned has fallen since 2012. Of those completed and ongoing, RTPI has found that:

  • 19% were general or operational;
  • 15% regarded customer service and stakeholder engagement;
  • 15% dealt with development management, guidance, planning conditions, etc.;
  • 14% were devoted to benchmarking and best practice;
  • 13% had to do with communications and technology;
  • 9% dealt with Local Development Plans, action programmes, development briefs, etc.;
  • 9% focussed on the natural or historical environment; and
  • 6% were devoted to masterplanning and design.

Planning authorities are therefore committed to improving services and continuing the ‘culture change’ in planning. Traditional indicators provide a consistent and comparable basis for analysis and are crucial for understanding the responsiveness of the service, but should be broadened to consider wide-ranging effects of spatial planning to help improve processes and outcomes in the future.

Planning authorities have been tasked with streamlining processes and maintaining a high service standard amid budgetary constraints. This scrutiny is likely to continue without ‘ring-fenced’ funding and with resumed cuts. There are several factors that indicate reduced investment in the planning service:

  • The Scottish Government’s Block Grant is to decrease by over 19% between 2011 and 2019, affecting investment in the planning service;
  • Planning constitutes a small proportion of local authority budgets and is set decrease further into 2015/2016 (a drop .7% of local authority budgets in 2013/2014 to .63% in 2015/2016, a difference of £3 million); and
  • Between 2009/2010 to 2015/2016, gross expenditure in planning will have dropped by nearly £40 million.

The limited scope for authorities to raise income has more profound effects on the ability to meet Scottish Government policy of full cost recovery. Indeed, many planning authorities have not met full-cost recovery.

  • Income from planning fees accounts for 63% of core processing costs in 2013/2014;
  • Nearly a third of reporting authorities fall beneath 50% full-cost recovery.
  • A third of authorities reached 66% cost recovery in 2013/2014 (compared to 80% in 2005/2006); and
  • The average ‘cost’ to the taxpayer per authority is £1.9 million.

Restrictive budgets and scrutiny over future resources may affect how planning authorities maintain adequate staff and improve the service, particularly with increased development pressure. Staff levels across planning departments have decreased by approximately 20% since 2009, and median departments have decreased from 27 in 2012/2013 to 25.5 in 2014/2015. It is estimated that staff costs accounts for a large portion of planning expenditure.

Improved processes and outcomes demand realistic financial resourcing. Income generated strategies should be considered to ensure full-cost recovery, either through increased planning application fees or charging for pre-application discussions following Scottish Government policy that the burden of processing applications should not only be borne by planning authorities.

Planning promotes sustainable economic growth, sustainable development and social justice. Planners enable the right developments to take place at the right time and in the right place, and this depends on the proper resourcing of the planning system. Planning performance is dependent on every party in the planning process. Given the key role that public sector planning plays in enabling and managing development, the Scottish Government should ensure proper resourcing to enable effective joint working between stakeholders whilst achieving greater transparency, efficiency, accessibility and positive and a responsive user-centred service called for by the Christie Commission (2011).

Any future Scottish Government and local authorities must continue to invest in the planning service, to streamline procedures and replace the planning penalty clause for planning authorities with a system of incentivisation. Despite overall improvement, adapting to increased development pressure and decreased central funding will require more innovative solutions to maintain a responsive, transparent and effective service.

Provide a robust framework for decision making on investment.

  • There must be adequate investment in the planning system to ensure better outcomes. This depends on continuing to develop clear and dynamic performance criteria and rewarding improvement in processes and outcomes.
  • Planning performance should be analysed holistically – integrating all planning ‘impacts’ – to assess how resources can be used and what they can achieve.
  • All stakeholders in the planning process have a role to play in improving performance.
  • Innovative income generating strategies (including changes to the planning fee structure) should be considered to cover costs.

Continue to improve performance:

  • Improving planning performance, providing certainty for stakeholders and ensuring better outcomes for all parties should remain a priority.
  • More work should be done to refine frameworks to measure quality ‘developments on the ground’ by improving and standardising ‘impact’ performance indicators.
  • Work should continue to monitor and scrutinise existing key performance indicators, to develop and share best practice between authorities.

De-clutter existing processes and procedures:

  • There may be a need for planning authorities to think about how their services are delivered to adapt to a changing resource context.
  • Continuing a culture change in planning depends on developing more efficient processes, embracing technologies to improve transparency, data accessibility, and decision making.
  • Responsive project management tools should be developed to ensure that development plan preparation is closely monitored and that approval and implementation remains on track.

You can read the full report here

2 thoughts on “Progressing Performance – RTPI Scotland Research

  1. It is unfortunate that the publication of the paper coincides with the poor performance figures for Q1 2015, thereby undermining any justify yet more fee increases.

    The planning penalty clause referred to in the Paper has never been used despite the lack of improvement in the service, on the other hand, planning fees have been increased on the back of some rather inconclusive performance statistics.

    Planning fees have increased by 25% over the past few years yet planning budgets are being cut. This is not the fault of stakeholders and users of the planning system who are enduring increased costs, but rather the fault of local politicians who won’t pass on fee income to the planning dept.

    With regards full cost recovery, when it states income from application fees accounts for 26.5% of the full cost of the planning system, does “the planning system” include development planning? The Paper does not actually attempt to equate actual fee income with expenditure. Furthermore, there is little analysis of the various policy work undertaken by planning departments. Is it expected that planning fees will cover this and the preparation of development plans.

    There is no analysis of the time taken in man hours to deal with applications. I seriously doubt that the fee for a dormer window extension (£401?) covers the cost of processing such an application. Compare this with the £20k fee fo a PiP application followed by a further £20k worth of AMSC fees, making a total of £40,000 for most major housing developments. I can assure you that even a cursory reading of all correspondence, consultation responses and the officers report on applications I have submitted could not lead anyone to the conclusion that the planning authority were out of pocket!

    I would also take issue with the statement that planning authorities have made progress in identifying what is expected of developers in terms of contributions…the Midlothian LDP was published for statutory consultation without a single SPG paper or technical paper regarding the delivery of necessary infrastructure.

    1. Thank you for your constructive comments. The Paper is meant to provoke debate about the planning service and resourcing, and we are pleased that it has produced a strong reaction and hope others will comment.

      The Paper sets out our view that more needs to be done to ensure that resources within the planning service are directed appropriately and proportionately. It aims to show a trajectory towards decreasing resources and a possible correspondence to performance attainment. It does not suggest that authorities should be complacent about performance standards, that it is the fault of one party or another, or that fees should be increased as a matter of course.

      One point is methodological. Whilst the scope of this Paper would include matching income-to-expenditure in the context of planning fees, there are complications with obtaining this data and we therefore used existing sources which, for reasons of sensitivity, only contain ‘headline figures’. Work is ongoing by HoPS in this regard, and RTPI Scotland is keen to support this work. The fact that planning authorities do not meet full cost recovery for development management functions should be cause for concern, and how this is addressed is a matter of debate. We agree that more transparency is needed in relation to fees, but this is arguably not the most pressing issue for planning authorities and a more holistic understanding of what planning delivers must be considered in addition to the how budgets are allocated, which differs between authorities.

      Furthermore, the Paper makes note of the important role of Development Planning. In part, it attempts to highlight the broad-brush resourcing picture whilst also pointing out that plans are largely up-to-date. To open up constructive dialogue, the Paper did not aim to single-out individual authorities but identifies the importance of development planning and policy and the need to continue to invest in this service. Indeed, inconsistencies in approaches to developer contributions, for example, can benefit from a proper debate about proportionate resourcing and continued service improvements.

      Please continue to offer your comments. RTPI Scotland view this as a starting point for a frank conversation about planning resourcing and performance.

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