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No Special Measures for FBC

No Special MeasuresAs we said in 'Is Fylde Still Heading for Special Measures?' we're not great supporters of the sort of planning performance 'league tables' that Government is now applying to Councils.

In our view they place far too much emphasis on uniformity, and they don't take account of local preferences and local situations.

The also influence those being measured into doing things merely to tick the right boxes on the statistical returns.

We also said that we didn't much like the idea of Fylde heading into 'Special Measures' for planning either.

If that were to happen, it risks giving local people even less say on planning decisions, and that's not a good thing.

But the bad news, at that time, was that Fylde looked as though it was still en-route to that fate.

We said that because over a rolling two year period, the Government uses statistics that Fylde (and all other councils) send in each quarter to evaluate each council's 'speed of performance' in deciding planning applications .

And on 30th July 2013, Fylde's figures for the first seven out of eight quarters had been published by Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) as its "Interim Planning Performance Speed Of Decisions, July 2011 to March 2013".

Details of this report as first published were extracted and recorded in our article 'Is Fylde Still Heading for Special Measures?'

They showed that, with just thee months left to go, Fylde's performance on 'Speed of Decisions' for planning applications decided within 13 weeks had averaged just 26%.

Knowing what was 'in the pipeline' - we didn't think that average percentage could be pulled back to put it over the 30% minimum that Fylde needed to avoid being put into 'special measures.'

So we thought Fylde would probably be in trouble - hence our pessimism.

As it turns out, we were (sort of) wrong.

Fylde managed to scrape through with 34% of its decisions made within the allowed timescale, so it has avoided being placed in Special Measures for planning, at least for the time being.

We're very pleased this has happened, but we we're curious about how it might have come about, so we had a closer look.

We used a Freedom of Information request to ask for Fylde's figures for the last three months ending in June 2013.

This showed a performance of only 28.8% for the final 'quarter' of the two year assessment period.

We were even more confused at that - because we couldn't see how an average performance of 26% over seven quarters, and a final quarter performance of only 28.8% could possibly result in an overall average of 34%

The answer is, of course, it couldn't.

What we did find, was that Fylde's final performance figures disagreed with what the Government had previously published as its 'Interim Findings' for Fylde.

Thus Fylde's most recent figures disagreed with what they had previously sent to Government (and the figures the Government had previously published about Fylde).

So the change to 34% had not come about by improving performance.

It had come about mostly by retrospective adjustments made to the figures Fylde had supplied in earlier returns.

That might have been because some applications had been removed altogether from the calculations, or that some decisions had changed to become within the time limit, (when previously they were outside it), or some applications were no longer classified as 'major' developments, or that sort of thing.

We thought we'd look into it in a bit more detail.

The Government's rules for assessing the performance of councils can be seen at this link Criteria for Designation

But basically they look at 'Major applications' (more than 10 houses) and measure 'quantity' using the time within which a council takes a decision, and 'quality' by the number of application decisions overturned at appeal.

The final calculation uses the average percentage figure for a two year assessment period.

Then, once the first two year tranche has been considered in 2013, it becomes a rolling assessment with a new quarter added and an old one dropped off.

For 'speed of decision making' the threshold that would see a council designated for Special Measures was set at 30% or fewer of an authority's decisions made within 13 weeks, "or such extended period as has been agreed in writing with the applicant".

We think that the words in italics might have been a significant safety net for some councils.

Whilst some readers will no doubt be surprised that Fylde's 34% was achieved by changing earlier figures, the Government clearly allowed for changes to previous data by including permissive clauses within its regulations.

A change to the regulations introduced around the end of the first 2 year assessment period says that "Beginning with the data recorded for the first quarter of 2013-14, the Department will also collect information on post-application extension of time agreements (provided these are in writing and specify a timescale for the decision), and the extent to which applications subject to them have been determined within the period specified in the agreement."

So in some circumstances Government was also prepared to accept retrospective changes to returns that had been sent in.

Fylde was one of the Councils that made such changes.

It's likely that Fylde's changes were either because:

  • some applications were taken out of their hands and went to appeal/call-in, or, because
  • the sites had been wrongly assessed in the first place and they changed (either to or from) being a 'Major Application' , or, because
  • Fylde agreed a revised timescale with the applicant either before or after the end of the 13 week period, or because
  • the application became subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment which extended the time to 16 weeks, or that sort of thing.

We thought it was interesting that the government had decided to add in a clause about collecting data on what it calls "post application extension of time agreements" - because that might suggest it was something Councils had used to 'help their stats out'.

It's pretty clear the Government is trying to "gee up" rather than "hold to account" those councils that they consider slow, because, apart from allowing figures to be changed retrospectively, Government has  also recently increased the 'fail rate'  test from 30% to 40% of decisions failing the time period test for the future. So less councils will be caught in future. This paragraph was incorrect. Please see update at end.

Only one Council (Blaby DC) was put into Special Measures in the first tranche of 'designations'.

So Fylde's figures were retrospectively adjusted and, despite what people might think, this appears to have been a legitimate process, with Fylde's changes having been agreed by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Fylde say the changes were to correct errors they had entered on the returns they had previously sent to Government.

We asked for a list of the planning applications that had been in the previous return, and a list of the applications in the final return, in the hope of seeing which applications had changed, and why the changes had been made.

We were provided with the list of applications in the final return, and told that only the 'correct' information now exists - because the erroneous data has been cleansed and removed from the planning application records.

So we were unable to make the comparison.

Fylde wasn't the only Council to scrape through with what appeared to be retrospective changes to data that had been submitted.

As the final date approached for the first assessment, upward of a dozen Councils were 'in the frame' - but in the event, only one was designated.

Whilst there are several reasons why a council could make retrospective changes, one of these bothered us - and, from the looks of things, it bothered Government as well.

This was the situation with "post-application extension of time agreements" - perhaps even where a retrospective agreement might have been reached to extend the timetable, and thus allow a council to make a change to the 13 week limit in returns they had already submitted.

If this happened anywhere, you have to wonder what might have induced a developer to agree an extension of time retrospectively, as Councils came under pressure to avoid being designated for Special Measures.

It raises the spectre of possibilities such as the linking of 'extensions of time agreements' to compensatory changes to a planning permission - perhaps by agreeing to post-decision reductions in the number of Affordable Homes a developer had to provide (thus making the site more profitable for the developer), or for post-application understandings that everything possible would be done to secure an approval, perhaps in the face of a planning committee that was reluctant to do so.

It is possible this sort of thing could have gone on in some places.

We wondered if it would be possible to show that Fylde had *not* done this sort of thing when it made changes to previously submitted data.

In order to do this we needed to establish the absence of a link between any applications that Fylde might have retrospectively adjusted, and, for example, instances where applications had been changed after the planning decision, or where officers had exerted very firm recommendations for approval.

Sadly, with Fylde having deleted the data about this from the earlier decisions, we simply can't tell which of the earlier ones changed.

So it's not possible to be certain what happened.

But what we can say with certainty is that Fylde did narrowly manage to escape being 'designated' and placed into Special Measures by the Government for its Planning service.

Dated:  24 April 2014

Our earlier paragraph had a logic error regarding a change in the percentage of applications that had to be approved in 13 weeks. The Government is now proposing to raise the threshold from 30% to 40%. That will, of course, make it more difficult for Councils to meet the requirement in the future - because they will have to determine a greater number of applications within the time limit.  We apologise to readers for our logic error in the article as first published, and are grateful to our eagle eyed reader who spotted it for us.

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