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Creative milieu? The HBC planning department is in the newly refurbished Aquila House.

Centre of excellence? The HBC planning department is based in the newly refurbished Aquila House.

HBC planning department – up in the top ten?

Is Hastings Borough Council’s planning department one of the 10 best in the country? Planning officials and Labour councillors think so, based on a rating drawn up by the independent Planning Advisory Service. The Save Ecclesbourne Glen campaign group found the claim mystifying and asked Chris Hurrell to look further into it – further indeed than the council, which could not even tell him how the rating was arrived at. Chris came to a rather different conclusion, as he describes here.

The claims by HBC that they are one of the top ten planning departments in the country has amused and confounded many local residents.

Much has been made by the head of planning, Andrew Palmer, and Labour Cabinet members of the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) classification that Hastings is one of the Top Ten planning departments.

The Top Ten classification could be laughed off by anybody with any experience of our planning department. However it is being used to present our planning department as reformed and efficient and as an excuse for refusing all requests for a review of the department. At a recent Cabinet meeting Mr Palmer placed great weight on this classification and offered supporting statistics to justify it. “Hastings has been in [PAS’] Top Ten nationally in terms of their own quality framework assessment,he said.

Meanwhile, in last month’s Ore ward report, Cllrs Michael Wincott and Richard Street wrote that PAS “…recently looked into the performance of all local planning authorities in the country and drew up a top ten which included Hastings. This is yet another accolade for our planners who, despite the brickbats they receive from local campaigners, are very highly regarded by the planning experts” (their emphasis).

Bungling over the Bunker - top ten performance? (Photo: Jak O'Dowd.)

Bungling over the Bunker – a top ten performance? (Photo: Jak O’Dowd.)

SEG has tried to establish how this classification was established and how many planning departments were considered. Questions have been put to local councillors and officers but it appears that nobody at HBC knows the basis for the Top Ten. This is strange given that HBC place so much weight and importance on it.

A recent SEG question to full council was refused on the grounds that the classification was determined by the PAS and we should contact them. We have now been in contact with the PAS who have been very helpful and we now know the basis for the Top Ten.

The classification was determined for just over 70 departments that participate in the PAS National Quality Framework. We believe that there are well over 400 hundred planning departments in the UK, so 70 represents only a minority of them. The PAS Top Ten classification was a one-off exercise based on specific criteria to determine which planning departments would be invited to a two-day session in Worcester as part of producing a PAS service guide. It was not intended to be used as a league table to assess performance.

The criteria as described on the PAS blog site and confirmed in our conversation with the PAS were:

“We designed a quick and simple compound measure that took total end-to-end times for majors, minors and other [applications] alongside a waste (withdrawn) measure. This gave us a top ten and we invited them along.” 

These criteria were specific for a one-off event. The Top Ten was produced by compounding the speed by which applications are treated and the number of withdrawn applications. These may or may not be an indicator of quality but there are certainly many others that would need to be considered to produce a performance league table; however this was not the purpose of the exercise.

There are national league tables available that might be more relevant in assessing performance.  These tables show that Hastings is far from being in the Top Ten:

  • Table 151 Measures the speed of major applications: Hastings comes 143 out of 337;
  • Table 153 Measures the speed of minor applications: Hastings comes 126 out of 337;
  • Table 154 Measures successful appeals on minor applications: Hastings comes 141 out of 337.

One should remain cautious of all such statistics. These too are limited and don’t take into account other relevant quality criteria. For example, there are no measurements of how many applications have misused minor amendments or ignored all local policies. However, what is clear is that HBC are being very selective in their use of statistics and prefer to use the PAS Top Ten classification rather than the more relevant and balanced national statistics.

To sum up, the Top Ten was not any sort of quality rating system by PAS, it was solely a quick and simple way for PAS to look at the small proportion of planning departments across the UK that participate in their scheme and to select 10 that took less time than others to process applications. It certainly does not provide any basis whatsoever for HBC to claim that its planning department is in the top ten in the UK.

SEG believe that the Top Ten classification has very little meaning apart from being used as spin by HBC to avoid tackling the many well documented problems that remain in our planning department.

 

Posted 16:22 Saturday, Mar 5, 2016 In: Home Ground

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