Does the DCLG have any strategy for Planning Reform after April? #NPPF

No.

The man to turn around the failing DCLG

The remarkable thing about the DCLGs priorities, as reflected in their Business Plan with the Cabinet Office is that they seemingly come to an end this financial year.

The regional strategies will have been revoked (we presume), the NPPF will have been published & some lesser changes such as revised development plan regulations and revisions to the use classes order agreed – but that is that.  Even issues such as local fee setting and funding for the Neighbourhood planning pilots dont look beyond April.

There are no published plans for delivering of comprehensive local plans coverage within 2 years.  No plans for ensuring roll out and critical mass in neighbourhood planning, no plan for ensuring the ‘duty to cooperate’ is delivered and effective, no plans for dealing with the real causes of customer service and complaint in planning – issues which really could help the growth agenda, concerning application processing time and the direction of effort of the majority of the planning profession.  There are no plans to coordinate and deliver the infrastructure for where major growth is likely to occur or to unlock the potential of major growth locations.

Indeed in the Steve Hilton view of the world you would localise everything then abolish 80% of the civil service, replacing it with ‘nudge’ incentives and radically decentralised decision making. Before he goes in May his legacy will be a major proposal on Civil Service reform.  Although leaving in a huff after rows where he claimed that reform had ‘run out of steam’ according to reports at the weekend the truth is there was no steam at the outset.  The introduction of the new homes bonus has been a conspicuous policy failure as most council leaders in pressure areas would be willing to spend the last pound of their budgets if it lowered housing numbers.  Localism is a good thing but the reforms as designed could hardly have been designed any different if the intention was to dramatically reduce housing and economic growth – which of course was their original intent when Caroline Sperlman was shadow Secretary of State. If the government, as is likley, turn away from the ‘plan B’ of appeal-led planning which the NPPF represented they will have no coherent agenda to deliver growth.

The reforms themselves have reduced verry little the demands fro central civil servants.  Yes lots of quango employed/RDA staff have gone but apart from those directly employed to act as the link for regional strategies and LDF, less than 20 staff nationally, the introduction of the additional tier of neighbourhood plans has created a demand for additional posts to oversee the programme.  The staff responsible for national policy have been no less busy in the last two years, despite not being asked what the NPPF should look like.  Civil servants have been reduced to summarising consultation responses like graduate planning interns. Indeed the DCLG calls in and determines as many cases as it ever did.  So overall functions at ‘head office’ remain much the same.  The only section which has been cut down to the quick is the old growth areas directorate- which if growth really was the number one priority would have been the one area to be protected.

Indeed with the axing of those civil servants who liaised with major developers, local government and infrastructure on a day to day basis the DCLG has become inward looking and reverted to type – as a visitor to the dept over 20 years it has become again the kind of ivory tower department, out of touch with local government AND development, it was before John Gummer’s tenure.  Indeed I have been shocked by how out of touch it has become.

Later today the Institute for Government will publish its own contribution towards civil service reform. As Peter Riddell its Director states:

 the Civil Service does not work well enough, particularly in linking policy to implementation and in running big projects. Whitehall has also been clumsy in dealing with arm’s-length bodies and quangos, with a lack of clarity about why they have been set up and then how they should operate, and at handling locally elected leaders, from councils to city mayors and police commissioners. The Civil Service is used to working in a centralised state with one party in control. But there are now seven separate parties in office in various central and devolved administrations….

What might success look like? The Civil Service would be smaller but clearer about its core functions – no longer the exclusive or even predominant provider of policy advice or manager of projects, but a co-ordinator to ensure decisions are made and implemented on the basis of the best possible information. It would be better at financial management, commercial skills, and developing its staff. Also, senior civil servants would be more personally accountable both within Whitehall and to Parliament.

What he is talking here about is what the project management profession calls ‘programme management’ – yet since when did senior civil servants require Prince 2 programme manager expert certification?  However programme management requires two things, firstly a programme to manage, which the DCLG over the medium term does not have, secondly some metric by which to measure progress.  David Cameron may at last be getting a ‘dashboard app’ for his IPAD to keep on eye on departments, but any management dashboard without a speedo is useless.  The last government may have been obsessed by the use of targets in the art of ‘deliverology’ (to use Sir Micheal Barbour’s term) but the late lamented Number 10 delivery unit worked.  From the Blair biography.

It was relatively a small organization, staffed by civil servants but also outsiders from McKinsey, Bain and other private sector companies, whose job was to track the delivery of key government priorities. It would focus like a laser on an issue, draw up a plan to resolve it working with the department concerned, and then performance-manage it to a solution. It would get first-class data which it would use for stocktakes that I took personally with the minister, his key staff and mine, every month or so. The unit would present a progress report and any necessary action would be authorised…

However the mistake was not to introduce this at a departmental tier as the way all departments should run and then to run Number 10 on the principles of programme management rather than performance management – which is the job of individual ministers.  The truth is targets work, if the metrics are plunging downwards then ministers must act.  By any measure of performance such as plans in place, houses built and allocated etc.  The DCLG is I am sad to say a failing department and must act – but as its permanent Secretary is now Head of the Civil Service sadly remedial action is unlikely.

I have a four point plan for DCLG over the medium term though sadly I have zero confidence in it being delivered.

Action one would be to set a very small number (5 or less) key metrics for success, such as increasing housebuilding to 270,000 a year within four years (which is 230,000 a year household growth plus a few technical adjustments – the level of ‘need’), and having 100% local plan adopted coverage within two years.

Secondly set up a cross departmental delivery team to bring these about blockages are often the result of any departments actions or the actions of transport or utility regulators.  The governance of this unit should be directly responsible to the Prime Minister.  The aim would be to ensure that the key blockages to schemes and projects being ‘shovel ready’ are removed within 18 months and preferably much less.  Sir John Armitt chair of the Olympic Delivery Agency should be its head as he will be looking for a new role after the Olympics.  I also hope Cameron moves Pickles (perhaps to Baroness Wari’s job), flag waving to the base but hopeless on delivery, and replaces him with a more hard headed minister with turnaround expertise, such as Phillip Hammond, David Laws or even Lord Coe.

Finally the lesson should be learned of how similar departments in jurisdictions with pluralist political systems at local level are run.  Here ministries are more likely to provide ‘toolkits’ – promoting best practice and their own objectives by allowing bidding for funding for projects which promote best practice – Challenge funding in Civil Service language.  The funding pool should be a combination of the £4.5bn HCA budget (which should rebvert to a purely regulatory role as delivery would be job number 1 at the heart of the DCLG), the New Homes Bonus Budget (a failed programme), and those parts of the £2.4bn regional growth fund designed to leverage private sector investment in infrastructure.  Together with contributions from what otherwise would have been DOT budget headings, such as the Local Sustainable Transport Fund etc, as well as existing funding pots for new schools in growth areas it should be possible to put together a pot of £25 bn/annum within current spending limits, which is likely to leverage around £100 billion of private investment, £25bn total funding for the Olympics, but each year and every year. Thats £89,000 per home. Now if you can’t deliver 270,000 homes per annum, with associated infrastructure, with that level of funding im a dutchman.  Indeed if you did a business case in terms of saved housing benefit from the DCLG budget for social housing built over 5 years the DCLG would probably save money.

Finally the DCLG should focus like a laser beam on reforms to improve the processing time of planning applications.  Ill cover this area in more detail in future posts, as well as how the department can use its funding powers as an incentove to make the tough ‘duty to cooperate’ decisions on where the growth should go.

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