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    Report No: D94/2001 - 05 December 2001 - Final Copy

    Planning Review : 2001
    Report of Corporate Director (Environment)

    For Decision

    Purpose of Report:

    This report details the findings of the review of Planning Services undertaken in 2001 and proposes an improvement plan to develop these services further.


    It is recommended that :-

    1. the Planning Review Improvement tables be noted;
    2. the planning reception be opened one hour later for one day a month to allow for staff training;
    3. the Planning Services be prioritised for improvement as part of the Council's e-government strategy;
    4. the composition of the two Planning Committees remains unchanged.

    Resourcing Implications:

    All IT costs referred to in this report will be addressed as part of the Council's plans for implementing electronic government. Funding will be available in the 2002/03 revenue budgets to meet other short term costs arising from this report. Costs arising in the long term will be considered in the report due to come to Cabinet in July 2002.

    Body of Report:

    1.0 SUMMARY

    1.1  The report details the background and purpose to the Planning Review and why it looked at all the functions of Planning Control and Planning Policy.

    1.2  The questionnaires and workshops for all Members, Parish and Town Councils and the Customers' Panel, previously circulated to Members, show strong areas of consistency, matched by the staff's own feedback.

    1.3  The most difficult part of the review has been to obtain genuinely comparable data from other authorities and further work is currently in hand to obtain this. 

    1.4 While the current performance of the Planning Control Service puts it close to the upper quartile nationally this level of performance is not sustainable, as detailed in section 10.

    1.5  The Planning Review findings can be grouped into 3 categories:-

    a.  those within the control of the service, which accounts for most of the identified improvements, many of which have been commenced;

    b.  those requiring the support of other Service groups or corporate changes, such as delaying opening the front desk for one hour per month for the training of administrative staff;

    c.  improvements requiring additional resources.

    1.6  In undertaking such a Review, the emphasis tends to be on those matters that can be improved.  It should also be stressed that a significant amount of high quality work is undertaken in the whole Planning Service and the commitment and calibre of the staff in achieving this.


     2.1 There were several reasons for the need to undertake a review now (detailed in section 3) below. The brief that the officers worked to was:

    "To ensure the Planning Service is effectively organised and sufficiently resourced to provide a level of service which meets both national efficiency targets and local quality indicators".

    2.2 This brief has resulted in an improvement plan that aims to achieve two things:

    a. to reach a decision with all planning applications within a timescale that is in the upper quartile of all local planning authorities nationally; and

    b. to ensure that the Planning Control and Planning Policy Services are delivered in a quality, effective manner in line with the expressed views of stakeholders (e.g. Members, Parish Councillors, Applicants, Public), so that local standards are met.

    2.3 Members will appreciate that this is an ambitious brief in the timescale and that the review has highlighted some issues that will be fully investigated and developed in the Best Value Fundamental Service Review (FSR) of the Planning Service.


    3.1 There were several reasons for undertaking the review in the summer/autumn of 2001, namely -

    • Cumulative calls on the entire Planning Service, whether from legislation, customer aspirations, local changes in practice etc.;

    • Central government Key Performance Indicator of a minimum of 65% of planning applications to be dealt with in 8 weeks;

    • Member, officers and public (Parish Councils, applicants, objectors etc.) concerns;

    • Council re-structure to support the new democratic structure and loss of former Head of Service;

    • Members, officers and public expressed wish to maintain a quality as well as a speedier service;

    • The work of Scrutiny Committee in reviewing Developers' Contributions.


     4.1 The decision was taken to review the entire Planning Service (e.g. Policy and Control) because:-

    • the entire service impacts on performance, e.g. planning applications are dependent on timely and accurate arboricultural and heritage advice etc.;

    • one of the aims of the restructuring is to reinforce the links between Planning Control and Planning Policy;
    • Members, Officers and public (Parish Councils, applicants, objectors etc.) concerns about issues other than the speed of decisions;
    • this is a logical preparation for the Best Value FSR;
    • it is essential to involve all staff to ensure that all issues are addressed and that there is ownership of the solutions.

    4.2 The officers worked as 8 Review Teams, covering all aspects of the services:

    • Front Desk;
    • Enquiries;
    • Applications and Committee support;
    • Application casework;
    • Enforcement;
    • Appeals;
    • Policy;
    • Heritage;

     with each team producing a report and improvement plan, detailing all suggested improvements.  These reports are available from the Planning Service, the "highlights" of each Review Team's findings having been covered in the Members' Seminar on 12 November 2001. All staff were involved in at least one Review Team.

    4.3 In addition the Core Team have taken responsibility for Corporate matters (e.g. IT, Health and Safety) arising from the review, budgets and actions involving other services.

    4.4  Questionnaires were sent to Members, Parish and Town Councils, the Users' Group and other local authorities. Workshops were held to expand on the questionnaire findings, namely:-

    • Members (20 July and 12 November)
    • Parish Councils (27 September);
    • Users' Group (24 September)
    • All Staff (24 July and 2 October)

    The results of the questionnaires and workshops are detailed below.

    4.5  A Member Working Group (comprising Councillors Mrs. Halstead, Mrs. Palmer, Burridge, Pattie and Clegg) has met throughout the Review, to advise the Officers and keep the review on track. This has proved invaluable and the Officers are very appreciative of the significant time commitment made.


    5.1 The results of the questionnaire sent to all Members (21 returned) and the two workshops were sent previously to all Members.   Copies can be obtained from the Planning Teams.

     5.2  However, the main points are:-

    • 20% see the need for an improvement in Planning Control;
    • 29% find it difficult to contact case officers;
    • better presentation of plans/maps needed at Committees;
    • better editing of Committee reports needed;
    • 47% consider enforcement to be weak;
    • higher level of accuracy of information needed;
    • written pre-application advice;
    • consistent, better advice on design issues;
    • raise the quality of development generally;
    • Members being kept up to date;
    • improved public access to officers.

    5.3 Composition of Planning Committees

    5.3.1  The Review Team was asked by some Members to look at the composition of the Planning Committees from the point of view of their relationship to the Area Community Committees. In particular, the issue was raised of Bramshott and Liphook Parish being in South Planning Committee for planning application decision matters and North East Area Community Committee for Planning Policy issues. The concern being that different Members, apart from Bramshott & Liphook Members, sat on each Committee and consistency might be an issue.

    5.3.2  The Review Team takes the view that these arrangements are not unique to Bramshott and Liphook Parish. Similar arrangements exist so far as South and North East Area Community Committees are concerned where planning policy matters are considered by smaller area committees than the planning decisions for those areas. Furthermore, the consistency between planning policy and planning decisions falls to a combination of:-

    • Development Policy Panel
    • Close working with Committee Chairmen
    • Referrals to full Council

     5.3.3  The Review Team has not been able to identify any significant conflicts between the actions of the Area Community and Planning Committees.

    5.3.4  From a practical point of view, the composition of the Planning Committees is mirrored by the two Area Planning Control teams. In workload terms 53% of applications fall within the North Area and 47% in South Area.  The transfer of Bramshott and Liphook Parish would change the ratio to 61% and 39% respectively. Such a change would have implications for the business of Planning Committees as well as creating practical problems of accommodating 25 Members at North Planning Committee venues. An adjustment of staffing would also be required which is itself not necessarily a significant issue. North Committees could be expected to increase in duration.

    5.3.5  Looking to the future, the location of the new development proposals in the First Review and Second Review Local Plans means that the workload of the two Planning Committees would remain balanced if Bramshott and Liphook Parish was retained in the South Planning Committee.

    5.3.6  The other issue relevant to this matter is the impact on the public. Public transport arrangements between Liphook and Petersfield are far superior than between Liphook and Alton as are the road connections. Petersfield is therefore a more sustainable and convenient location for Liphook residents to get to. Since the length of North Committees would increase, residents of Liphook attending such meetings would "lose" more of their time in travelling and sitting through longer meetings than is currently the position with meetings at Petersfield.

    5.3.7  For the above reasons the Core Group recommend that the composition of the two Planning Committees remain unchanged.


     6.1 The results of the Parishes response (30 returned out of a possible 39) to the questionnaires sent to all Parish and Town Councils and the workshop held to consider the issues raised have been previously sent to Members.  Further copies are available from the Planning Teams.

     6.2 However, the main points are:-

    • 27% thought the Planning Control Service needed some improvement;
    • 4% said the same about Planning Policy and Heritage;
    • 24% have difficulty contacting case officers on specific applications;
    • 44% say calls are not returned within 24 hours;
    • clearer plans with more initial information;
    • 43% consider enforcement to be weak;
    • no "agreement" at pre-application stage;
    • 13% have difficulty contacting Policy and Heritage officers;
    • 58% of calls generally are not returned within 24 hours;
    • more notice to be taken of Parish comments;
    • faster response to correspondence;
    • need to speed up enforcement, start action earlier, more robust action on flagrant breaches;
    • clearer explanation of enforcement issues;
    • provide copy of written pre-application advice with each application;
    • more discretion in enforcement cases.


     7.1 The results of the questionnaire (12 returned out of a possible 18) sent to the Customer Panel and the subsequent workshop have been previously sent to all Members.  Further copies are available from the Planning Teams.

    7.2 However, the main points are:-

    • 42% thought the Planning Service needs improvement;
    • 69% prefer negotiations to 8 week decisions;
    • 42% have difficulty contacting case officers;
    • 53% have difficulty contacting Policy and Heritage Officers;
    • more delegated decisions are preferred;
    • more flexible infill policies sought;
    • better pre-application arrangements wanted;
    • 62% consider 1 week a reasonable wait for an appointment;
    • 62% regard 4/5 days a reasonable time to register applications;
    • 70% want access direct to Acolaid;
    • unavailability of officers for advice;
    • improved liaison between officers and agents on prospective development proposals;
    • 100% want access to Acolaid in reception.

    7.3  Officers are fully aware that it has not been possible, given the time constraints of the Review, to survey the public as to their views. The Customer Panel represents the more frequent users of the services. It is intended to rectify this with the Best Value FSR.


    8.1  Every member of staff within the Planning Service has been involved, both in the initital workshop and in contributing to one or more of the 8 Review Groups.  This was seen as essential if the staff were to have ownership of any resulting improvements.  As can be seen in the improvement tables (Appendix A ), some three pages, comprising 27 improvements, have already been actioned that could be achieved now within existing budgets.

    8.2  The debate and conclusions reached by the 8 Review Teams have been fully documented and are available within the Planning Service, not being attached to this report only for reasons of length.


    9.1  This has proven to be the most difficult exercise in the Planning Review.  Requests for comparative data were first sought in July 2001 and some authorities have proved unable or unwilling to provide data.

    9.2  Equally, great care is needed in interpreting the information provided, as the more officers research apparent discrepancies, the more differences in compiling/recording information are apparent.

    9.3  On a positive note a Benchmarking Group has been established to overcome such problems and holds its inaugural meeting on 4 December 2001.  The Heads of Planning Policy and Planning Control will represent the Council.  Experience of other such benchmarking groups in other service areas has shown that it usually takes one to two years to reach mutually acceptable comparative data, so officers will be proposing that the benchmarking group collectively employ a consultant to speed up this process.

    9.4  As a consequence, officers are continuing to work with the data provided and provide more information to Cabinet at a future date.  Comparisons have been made with nearby authorities (Basingstoke and Deane, Waverley, Test Valley and Chichester) and the "Chiltern" benchmarking group (Vale of White Horse, Wychavon, Suffolk Coastal, Broadlands, West Dorset and Chiltern districts). 


    10.1  The Planning Review has required approximately 1400 hours of Officer time, or 0.7 FTE.   It should be noted that any improvements necessary to implement a new computer system, or the Best Value FSR, would also be labour intensive, albeit necessary to continue to improve the existing service.

    10.2 The current performance position is:-

    a. the additional work caused by the Structure Plan and PPG3 is now completed, so work on the Local Plan is proceeding according to the revised timetable.

    b.  Planning Control achieved an average of 75% of applications decided within the 8 week timescale for the period April to October 2001.  At this rate the District Council is just within the top quartile of performance nationally.  However, this performance is not sustainable without service changes because:-

    - it relies on temporary staff undertaking professional planning work, equivalent to 1.6 FTE throughout this period;

    - areas of work have had to be temporarily deferred (e.g. compliance with conditions, which is resulting in additional reactive enforcement work);

    - poor customer service has resulted (e.g. long waits for appointments, no negotiation with applicants) which is unacceptable to Members, Parish Councils, applicants and staff;

    - the level of personal administration is suffering (e.g. filing, which results in subsequent problems);

    - 1.5 FTE of overtime (mostly unpaid) is being worked by the Planning Control Staff;

    c.  design issues are not being satisfactorily covered (e.g. reliance on generalist planners for advice), which is a significant problem with PPG3;

    d. the work priority being given to advising Planning Control has resulted in the deferment of other Heritage high priority work (e.g. designating Tree Preservation Orders and Conservation Areas, protecting buildings at risk and reduced customer service);

    e.  the implications of the new workload of the two Heads of Service is beginning to impact on both services.

    10.3  Reviews tend to focus on areas of improvement and change, so it is important to stress that much of the work of the two Planning Teams is of a high quality with an emphasis on improving the service to customers.


     11.1 The findings can be grouped into 3 categories:-

    (a)  those within the control of the Planning Control and Planning Policy Services.

    This accounts for a huge number of improvements, reflecting the hard work of the staff as detailed in Appendix A, items A to D These have been prioritised and include:-

    • suggestions where work can be done differently or cease altogether, for example, not processing invalid applications and cashing applicants cheques, using the Committee application report as the basis for written statements in appeals cases, etc.;
    • resources being moved within the service to either higher priority areas or to rationalise workloads or areas of expertise, for example, all Heritage enforcement work being undertaken by the Enforcement Team, all validation procedures being undertaken by the Technical Team, etc.;
    • restructuring the Technical Team from specialist to generic working to both speed up progess and encourage "ownership" and knowledge of casework.

    Many of these improvements, where they are within budget, have already been actioned.  The others have been prioritised into medium term improvements to 30 June 2002 (section C) and long term improvements (section D).

    (b)  improvements depending on corporate action outside the control of the Planning Services, detailed in Appendix A, items E and F. This includes:-

    • delaying the opening of the Planning Reception for one hour each month to permit staff training/updating to occur in a systematic manner and improve the service to customers and free up planning officers;
    • support from the Democratic Services team for the Development Policy Panel;
    • a review with the Legal Services of the internal and external legal support provided to the planning services;
    • ICT.  As can be seen from the Improvement table there are a significant number of ICT and related improvements proposed, detailed in Section 12 below.

    (c) improvements requiring additional resources.

    Some improvements of the Planning Service to realise the brief (detailed in para 2.1) require additional funding.  Another two reports to Cabinet, "Implementing Electronic Government" (R39/01) and "Revenue Budget 2002/3" (R37/01 ), propose the funding of temporary support within the Planning Service in 2002/3 to enable further work to be undertaken.

    12.0  ICT / E-GOVERNMENT

    12.1  One of the significant findings of the Planning Review is the need to improve IT in the widest sense within the planning service.

    12.2  A separate report to this Cabinet (R.39/01 ) addresses the need to develop, as a priority, a corporate property database/GIS.

    12.3  Officers recommend that the Planning Service should, as a priority, undertake "business process engineering" in order to develop the new Acolaid computer system.  This would both improve performance in the areas it currently covers, and also deal with appeals, enforcement, pre-applications, more effective monitoring and better management information.

    12.4  It is recommended that the Officers concentrate on this activity in 2002 rather than commencing the Best Value FSR, since this would more logically follow the introduction of new systems.


    13.1  A number of other factors have arisen recently, which could not be taken into account during the Review, all of which could impact upon the Planning Service, namely:-

    • the government's consultation on both national and minimum performance targets for 2002/3;
    • the government's suggestion that 90% of all planning decisions be delegated;
    • the proposed national major review of the planning system [Green Paper due 11 December 2001] ;
    • that planning application fees have not been reviewed for three years and now account for less than half of the cost of running the service.  If reviewed, it is not clear as to whether they would be linked to performance targets.
    • the proposed South Downs National Park.


    14.1  The Planning Review has shown many areas of consistency between Members, Parish Councils, the Users' Group and staff in terms of the improvements sought.

    14.2  The attached Improvement Plan (Appendix A) details:-

    • 27 improvements already carried out;
    • 48 short term improvements for 2001;
    • 77 medium term improvements to 30 June 2002;
    • 18 longer term improvements;
    • 18 high and 7 medium priority suggested corporate improvements.

    14.3  The findings highlight the importance of ICT in improving the Planning Service and relate to the corporate proposals to create a council-wide property database/GIS, commencing with those services who would most benefit from its introduction.

    14.4  The Planning Service Best Value FSR could then review the improved service, seeking further, continuous improvements.

    14.5  It is proposed that the remaining improvements identified (Appendix B) be considered by Cabinet in July 2002 when:

    • the business re-engineering will be completed;
    • the specification for the developments to the Acolaid computer system will be agreed;
    • more reliable comparable data on other local authorities will hopefully be available.

    This will enable the Cabinet to consider further proposals for the Planning Service.


    Lynda Peacock, Corporate Director (Environment)

    Tel:           01730 234366

    Fax:          01730 267760

    e-mail:      lynda_peacock@easthants.gov.uk




    Background Papers:
    Reports of the 8 Review Teams, held in the Planning Service.

    Questionnaires and workshop sheets from District Councillors, Parish and Town Councils, Users' Group, Staff, other local authorities held in the Planning Service.

    Related Documents for this Meeting:

    Meeting Agenda

    Report - (Planning Review : 2001)
    Report - (Foot & Mouth Hardship Relief - Sturt Meats Ltd, Blacknest)
    Report - (Revenue Budget 2002/03)
    Report - (Licensing of Multi Purpose Vehicles (MPVs) for use as Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles)
    Report - (Alternate Weekly Collection for Refuse/Recycling )
    Report - (Implementing Electronic Government (IEG))
    Report - (Capital Programme Update 2001/2 to 2004/5 )