Written by Laura Woodroffe

The outcome of a planning application has the potential to influence the applicant hugely. People unable to make the changes they want to their home will sometimes move altogether. Subject to national planning laws and regulations, the process has a reputation for being stressful and confusing.

In 2016 Alice Lester joined Brent Council as Head of Planning, Transport and Licensing. She wanted to develop her team at Brent and bring a more questioning mindset to bear on the systems in place there. “When the LGA and Design Council’s Design in the Public Sector Programme came onto my radar, I jumped on it,” she says. “It was the perfect way to develop the team and tackle a high volume challenge at Brent – planning applications.”

As a planner it’s easy to get wrapped up in big strategic developments, forgetting that the majority of applications are from people who just want a rear extension.

Alice Lester, Head of Planning, Transport and Licensing, Brent Council

 

“When we presented our challenge on the first workshop at the Design in the Public Sector programme, it felt a little out of place. Other councils were tackling thorny issues like looked after children or health challenges,” says Alice. “But the programme affirmed that sometimes it is ostensibly minor improvements that can make a difference to people's lives. There aren’t that many big, complicated planning applications made each year, but there are thousands of household applications. Each one may be small, but if you can make a difference with such a high volume, you can have a huge impact.”

The Challenge

Brent Council processes around 5500 planning applications a year. The vast majority of those are from individual households, often mediated by an agent.

Like all councils, Brent is beholden to national planning laws and cannot circumvent those to make life easier for its residents. Amongst those residents, the planning application process has a bad reputation. “It’s something that should be quite simple,” says Alice, “but there is anxiety about it. People don’t think that it is going to be easy, the outcome feels uncertain, so there is a lot of emotion wrapped up in it.”

“Planners are often cursed with the popular reputation of being a pedantic stick-in-the-mud,” says Alice. “But that isn’t true, and certainly not in Brent. There was a real appetite for change and improvement. Essentially we, the team, wanted to make the process of applying for planning permission better. We wanted to make our residents’ lives easier.”

For the Design in the Public Sector programme Alice brought together a team that included both senior and junior planners and a manager of the planning departments support team. Bringing on people with significant management influence and others who were close to both the customer and process was vital to getting the team right.

What we did

For the team from Brent, the fundamental reframing of their challenge was one of the most useful parts of the Design in the Public Sector programme and provided the springboard for the rest of their thinking. “Initially our challenge wasn’t particularly well formed,” says Alice. “We just had this idea that we wanted to make it better for our customer.”

The question of who that customer actually was, was a critical issue that the team would solve in the early days of the programme. Was their customer primarily the applicant? What about objectors, agents or even the wider community? “We were thinking a lot about agents,” says Alice, “because they are often the person that makes the application on behalf of a householder, some make multiple applications and therefore know the system well. However, the penny dropped during the programme when we realised that we should be focussing on the least expert, most anxious user possible.”

If you can get it right for the one-time, householder applicant, who simply wants to build a new room, then you can get it right for everyone.

Alice Lester, Head of Planning, Transport and Licensing, Brent Council

Building on this insight the team embarked on an information gathering process. All applicants and commenters in June and July 2017, around 800 people, received a customer satisfaction survey from the team.

The council had a 7% response rate to their survey and people were sometimes complimentary but also fairly critical. “In some ways, it made shocking reading,” says Alice, “particularly when it came to our communications. People were complaining about the lack of response to their call and emails, the lack of an option to leave a message when no one answered the phone, and general inconsistency of communication.” The survey will now become a regular part of the council’s communications strategy repeated every six-months. “In the long run I’d like to be measuring satisfaction levels of around 80 per cent,” says Alice.

The team also reinstated Planning Agents Forums, a mothballed event that had previously been run regularly. For the first forum, they invited the lead Councillor and a random selection of 50 applicants from the pool of 350 who had two or more applications in 2017. The random selection meant that they had not only expert users and harsh critics but also some people who had submitted invalid applications. They aimed to gain insights into the difficulties around the process and to begin to build trust with users.

Finally, the team conducted a review of some of their processes. The aim: to understand where they could redesign them to create efficiency for the user and the council.

Results

Better communications

The team recognised that the lack of consistent communication was a serious cause of stress and anxiety for applicants. So they looked to digital methods to find ways to provide regular contact at scale with all their customers. A text messaging service was also launched. Customers receive regular messages at each stage of the planning application process. The service has only been running for three months, but the number of people opting out is negligible, indicating that this is welcome communication rather than spam.

Ellie Atefi, a Planning Officer at Brent, is on the frontline dealing with applications and was part of the team that attended the Design in the Public Sector workshops. “The priorities in our daily work have changed’” she says. “I now pay more attention to correspondence and responding to queries as soon as I can. I’ve learned that when the customer is informed and receives even just a response to their concern, they feel much more satisfied even if their application is refused or delayed. Otherwise, they feel abandoned.”

Soon to be launched is another digital initiative to place QR codes on all site notices. Members of the public and potential commenters can scan the announcement with their phone and access the relevant webpage immediately.

Fewer complaints

Alice herself has seen some welcome results to this new approach in her working day. Previously she would receive many calls from people embroiled in the planning application process. “These people would practically fall off their chairs when I answered,” says Alice. “They were so shocked that anyone had picked up the phone, let alone the Head of Planning. Obviously, we were setting the bar low in terms of our approachability and responsiveness.” Alice has stopped receiving most of these calls. “People don’t get to the point where they need to make them anymore,” she says. “That’s partly because of the changes we’ve made to the process, but also because we are developing our staff. We’re changing their attitude, from one that avoids contact with the customer, to one that actively seeks to solve their problems.”

Streamlining the process

The team have had significant success in this area. Their review of systems led them to the ‘prior approvals’ category of planning applications for permitted developments. Where these applications were concerned, they were over-delivering against regulatory requirements. “We did this because we felt it helped the customer in the long-term,” says Alice “but when we looked more closely at the process, and the amount of time it was taking officers, we realised that the pay off was not enough.”

They redesigned and created a much more efficient system which both saved officers time and got the customer through the system quicker. Around 201 cases have already been processed using the more streamlined system. On average, decisions are issued around five days earlier than they were. However, Alice feels the real difference is in officer time. “It means officers spending less time on each case – we estimate we’ve saved over 100 working hours”

Ellie Atefi, who is on the ground using the new system agreed. “Because it is more oriented around customer’s needs rather than sticking to a rigid process, it is faster,” she says. “Unnecessary details are prevented, reports are shorter and more to the point. Planning officers can be much more responsive to correspondence from the customer.”

It’s almost become accepted wisdom that making a planning application will be stressful and unpleasant. The team at Brent Council have shown that design thinking can make a huge difference, even when the necessity of national regulation seems to get in the way of change.

Design in the Public Sector aims to help local authorities commission and deliver improvements to public health services. The programme builds an understanding of how design practices can enable local government professionals to shape and deliver improved services.

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