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Is Fylde Still Heading for Special Measures?

Is Fylde Still Heading for Special Measures?We must apologise to readers who don't enthuse about 'planning' - we seem to be writing about nothing else at the moment, and it's going to carry on for another couple of articles the way things are shaping up.

It's mostly because Fylde has published the latest draft of its Local Plan, but almost half the Council don't agree with it. Staining is angry, Wrea Green feels besieged, Warton is all but taking up arms, Kirkham is incensed, and Wesham is licking its wounds and waiting for the next onslaught.

So much anger from so many people.

In our article Special Measures for Planning? we set out the background to, and outlined the arrangements for, a council to be 'designated' under the criteria for assessing planning application performance using section 62B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

We also said that based on the figures published by the Department for Communities and Local Government for all but the last quarter, Fylde was on track to under perform, and risked being put into 'Special Measures' for planning.

It looks to us as though things haven't improved after the last quarter has been added in.

Now, before we go any further, we should say that we're not great supporters of the sort of league table that's being applied here. In our view it places far too much emphasis on uniformity and doesn't take account of local preferences and local situations.

As our regular readers know, we are great fans of St Eric Pickles who heads up the Department for Communities and Local Government. As well as understanding what makes Local Government tick, he more or less single handedly represents the lost ethos of the Conservative party.

But we're much less comfortable with that nice Mr Boles - the anti-planning minister - who we believe was foisted on St Eric by the Chancellor George Osborne and the Treasury after they had snaffled St Eric's former, and very able planning expert, Greg Clarke from St Eric.

That being the case, and because the nice Mr Boles is 'in charge' of planning (God forbid) it's probably been Mr Boles' baby to produce the league tables.

We don't much like them but, like Dim Tim's idiotic 20mph limit (and a lot of other stupid laws), they *are* now the law - so if they exist, you have to stick within them.

We should also say that we don't much like the idea of Fylde heading into Special Measures either. If it happens, it risks giving local people even less say on planning decisions, and that's not a good thing.

But it still looks as though Fylde is still en-route to that fate.

First we're going to look at the technical bit, so readers who don't want to know the details, can skip now to 'What are the results'

The Government has published detailed criteria for designation under planning performance measurement

A Local Authority may be 'designated' if the Secretary of State considers that "there are respects in which the authority are not adequately performing their function of determining applications"

Performance will be assessed in two ways: on the basis of the speed with which applications for major development are dealt with; and the extent to which such decisions are overturned at appeal (as an indicator of the quality of the decisions made by local planning authorities).

Because the criteria deal with two different aspects of performance, local planning authorities will be assessed against each aspect independently, and so could be designated on the basis of either aspect or both.

Data showing the performance of local planning authorities against these measures will be published by the Department for Communities and Local Government quarterly.

The data will be adjusted prior to publication (and prior to decisions about designations being made) to account for any gaps in the data provided to the Department.

The Secretary of State will decide whether any designations should be made once a year, and the first designations will be in October 2013.

Summarised, the criteria (see the above link for the full wordings) are:

Speed of decisions
Initially, this criteria takes the two year period between July 2011 and June 2013, and within this, it looks at the average percentage of all decisions on applications for major development (which we think is 10 houses or more) made:

  • within the 'statutory determination period' (which is 13 weeks unless an Environmental Impact Assessment applies - in which case it is 16 weeks), or
  • within such extended period as has been agreed in writing between the applicant and the local planning authority.

and "as recorded in the data collected by the Department for Communities and Local Government."

After that two year period, the data rolls on in a sort of continuous assessment.

The threshold for 'designation' is whether 30% or fewer of an authority’s decisions are made within the statutory determination period or such extended period as has been agreed in writing with the applicant.

So, less than 30% overall for the period July 2011 to the end of June 2103 and you're up the creek.

Quality of decisions
The measure to be used here is the average percentage of decisions on applications for major development that have been overturned at appeal, once nine months have elapsed following the end of the assessment period; as recorded in the data collected by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The assessment period for this measure is the same two years up to and including the most recent quarter for which data on planning application decisions are available at the time of designation, taking into account the nine months to be allowed for beyond the end of the assessment period.

The threshold for designation is 20% or more of an authority’s decisions on applications for major development made during the assessment period being overturned at appeal.

There are a few limited exemptions from this measure - for example if ten or fewer applications for major development are decided during the assessment period as a whole.

We can't yet make a sensible assessment of the 'quality' side of things for Fylde because of the nine month delay, so we'll leave that for now and look at that in the future.

Once it has been 'designated', a council has to make an action plan "addressing areas of weakness that it identifies as having contributed to its under-performance."

Councils will be encouraged to "draw upon support from the Planning Advisory Service, which is funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

(In our opinion this lot is the equivalent of the planning Gestapo - they're the last lot of people any sensible community like Fylde would want to see making decisions for it).

A council will then need to agree their action plan with the Government who will make a formal assessment of progress against the action plan no later than eleven months following the date on which the local planning authority was designated.

So to be 'de-designated' to go back to 'normal' you first have to please the Government and of course be in a better position when the new years' stats are added to the old ones and the first year's stats drop off - so you're not eligible for designation again.

All of this highlights the fundamental problem of course - the dichotomy between the will of central government and the will of local people as expressed by the councillors they elect. Most people in the UK who understand it, solidly disagree with the Government's policy on planning, and those who don't understand it are really angry when it's explained to them, and especially when its effect is imposed on them - just ask a few folk in Warton - or read our article 'Warton Anger'

There's also an interesting but not obvious side effect here. It is traditional (and right) that MPs across the country - and we know it to be the case for the last two MPs in Fylde - don't get involved in local planning matters. For the most part they rightly claim that their role is to deal with the effects of Government policy on their constituents (i.e. they don't deal with the effects of Borough or County policy).

But that's going to be a position that's much harder to maintain in those councils that end up being 'designated' - because the local councillors won't be dealing with major applications, those will be going straight to the Panning Inspectorate - which is a Government created QUANGO - so in future, we think some MPs could find themselves more involved in planning matters than they would have otherwise expected to be.

Collecting the data
The stats are collected by Government from statistical returns called PS1 and PS2 which have to be sent in by councils.

Stats will be published by the Government in March, June, September and December each year, but will not take into account situations where a decision has been taken out of the local planning authority’s hands, either through an appeal being made against non-determination within the statutory period, or where the application has been called-in by the Secretary of State.

Timetables agreed with the developer in advance of the application are accounted for, but from the first quarter of 2013, Government will also collect information on post-application written extension of time agreements, and the extent to which such application timetables have been met.

If you don't send the data in,  the Government will use a complicated 'seasonally adjusted' formula to assess what it calls 'imputed values' and that's the figure that will be used.

But if one or two quarters are missing  a 10% reduction will be applied to the figure after the imputed totals have been included. That rises to 15% for five or six missing quarters, and if seven or more quarters are missing (and especially if a council tries to say 'sod off') the council will be designated automatically.

That's the stick.

The carrot is that councils who are at risk of designation in the first two year period are being given an opportunity to fill any gaps in the data reported to the Department before any designations are confirmed (in which case the statistics – including any imputed values and penalties that have already been applied – will be recalculated to reflect the additional data that have been supplied).

The council will have 2 weeks to provide the missing data once the statistics up to and including the end of the assessment period are available.

The rules for applications that need Environmental Impact Assessments are also changing. These are allowed 16 weeks to determine (not 13), but from the first quarter of 2013 this extended determination period for applications subject to Environmental Impact Assessment will be taken into account.

In the meantime, any councils at risk of designation, (and that could well include Fylde) on the basis of information that in part pre-dates the first quarter of 2013-14, will be given an opportunity to notify the Department of the number of applications for major development subject to Environmental Impact Assessment which were determined during the assessment period and how long they took to decide.

A recalculation will then be made by Government before any designations are confirmed.

Well, back in June 'Planning Resource' revealed that seven local authorities - Horsham, Daventry, Halton, Hounslow, Fylde, Cherwell and Enfield - had determined fewer than 30 per cent of their major applications over the first 18 months of the two-year period.

On 30th July the Government published its "Interim planning performance speed of decisions, July 2011 to March 2013".

This showed 14 councils on 30% or less. At that time Fylde was 26%

The Government's publication also showed performance quarter by quarter.

This showed Fylde's performance (at that time) to be

July - September 2011
     Major Decisions:  10
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  4
Performance this quarter 40.0%

October - December 2011
     Major Decisions:  3
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  1
Performance this quarter 33.3%

January - March 2012
     Major Decisions:  9
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  1
Performance this quarter 11.1%

April - June 2012
     Major Decisions:  6
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  1
Performance this quarter 16.7%

July - September 2012
     Major Decisions:  7
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  2
Performance this quarter 28.6%

October - December 2012
     Major Decisions:  6
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  2
Performance this quarter 33.3%

January - March 2013
     Major Decisions: 9
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks:  2
Performance this quarter 22.2%

So in the first 21 of 24 months (i.e. up to end of March 2013) the totals were:
     Major Decisions: 50
     Major Decisions within 13 weeks: 13
Performance to date 26.0%

None of the data was missing, so none had been imputed and no penalty had been applied, but Fylde was on track to have less than 30% of its applications approved within the 13 week deadline.

Although the final results will not be published until October, we used a Freedom of Information request to ask for Fylde's figures for the last three months ending in June 2013.

They just arrived and it doesn't look a lot better.

Surprisingly they also show that Fylde disagrees with the Government's figures.

Have a look at the comparison.

Details St Eric    % FBC %
Q1: July - September 2011        
Major Decisions 10   7  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 4 40% 2 28.6%
Q2: October - December 2011        
Major Decisions 3   3  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 1 33.3% 1 33.3%
Q3: January - March 2012        
Major Decisions 9   9  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 1 11.1% 1 11.1%
Q4: April - June 2012        
Major Decisions 6   5  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 1 16.7% 1 20%
Q5: July - September 2012        
Major Decisions 7   6  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 2 28.6% 1 16.7%
Q6: October - December 2012        
Major Decisions 6   4  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 2 33.3% 1 25%
Q7: January - March 2013        
Major Decisions 9   10  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 2 22.2% 4 40%
So in the first 21 of 24 months (i.e. up to end of March 2013) the totals were
Major Decisions 50   44  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks 13 26% 11 25%
In the last three months (Q8: Apr - June 2013)
Major Decisions     8  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks     4 50%
So, the Period Totals: July 2011 to June 2013 (as at 30 Aug 2013)
Major Decisions     52  
Major Decisions within 13 weeks     15 28.8%

Assuming it's not simply that the Government has published (or been given) the wrong figures, it's mostly because (according to Fylde) there were less 'major decisions' in the first, fourth, fifth and sixth quarters of the two years period, so it *appears* as though Fylde has either changed the designation of some applications so they are not 'major applications' and thus eligible for consideration, or perhaps some have been moved into different periods - so some that were in Q1 are now in Q2 for example and some have been lost altogether.

The problem we have with both of these possibilities is that they are figures that Fylde has already submitted to Government - so either the Government or Fylde must have got them wrong. Now Fylde are - perhaps having seen their dire situation - trying to get them corrected or reclassified.

Given that situation, some may think Fylde is trying to 'fudge' the figures. We leave that possibility as something on which readers might like to cogitate.

Either way, the interim number of major applications according to FBC has gone down from the Government's previously published figure of 50, to 44.

Looking at Fylde's decision times for the interim period, these have also varied in Q1, 5,6, and 7 though mostly only by one or two.

So again, the number of decisions inside 13 weeks in the interim period has gone down. This time from 13 to 11.

This could be because some of the application are not now being counted, or perhaps because some of them involved Environmental Impact Assessments which, if these are allowed their 16 weeks (as EIA ones are) it could be the reason for the increase in the numbers in the seventh quarter.

The collective impact of both of these (assuming Fylde's latest figures are right) is to drop the interim total from 26% to 25%

Both of these interim results are below the 30% threshold, so in the classic tradition of long-lost cinema serials, it was all down to the last quarter.

As we have been saying repeatedly, Fylde seemed like it was being recommended to pass (and was passing) planning applications with gay abandon in recent months. We speculated they were trying to bring their stats up so they were not 'designated' - and we don't demur from that possibility having seen the stats as at today.

That's because the final quarter shows 8 major applications and 4 decisions made - a 50% approval rate - when the previous 18 months had averaged 25% and the highest individual quarter had been 40%. That's a big difference from the average.

Readers can form their own view, but if I was a resident of Staining, or lived near the awful block of flats that's recently been given permission in the tourist area of St Annes Promenade - completely contrary to what was probably the strongest planning policy Fylde has, I'd be wondering about the motives and perhaps about the advice given to planning councillors between April and June this year.

So where does this all leave us?

Well, according to what Fylde have just told us, as at today, during the full two year assessment period, they had 52 major applications and they decided 15 of them inside the 13 weeks. We make that a performance level of 28.8%

That's below the 30% mark and suggests Fylde is still on track to be designated as under-performing

What we can't tell at present is whether Fylde will convince the Government that its previous figures were wrong and need changing, or whether there is some special circumstance that will increase the number of decisions in the last (or possibly a previous) quarter so Fylde limps over the line with just enough to get by.

We actually hope they do. We hope that Fylde is not designated in October and put into special measures for planning - it would make life worse for Fylde residents if they were.

But whether they are or whether they are not, the real question here must be about the competence of those at Fylde who have caused this situation to arise, and we don't mean the 'planning' committee either. They don't make decisions about administration.

In the God-awful Cabinet system we have to endure at present, that's the role of the Portfolio Holder and his officers.

And that's what really needs sorting out.

Dated:  30 August 2013


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