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Planning Agent accreditation

by on June 17, 2009

One of the Killian pretty projects we are responsible for investigating is Recommendation 13(b) Develop an accredited Agents regime. Using the succesful implementation at St Helens as a potential model.

The simple idea being that having passed a quality test, perhaps over a range or quantity of applications an agent becomes accredited. The accreditation would be a quality mark that might ease passage of that agents subsequent applications through registration and potentially validation. The benefit to the agent being obvious and the lpa gets better quality applications.

It seems possible at this stage that the scheme might take one of 2 forms: either a national standard that an agent can obtain and use at any LPA or a set of guidelines for a locally operated scheme lpa by lpa.

I’m interested to hear your views on the principle, pitfalls and/or benefits of the idea.

28 Comments
  1. Marcus Galey permalink

    I have always been a keen supporter of a national accreditation scheme but I have severe doubts about subjective nature of locally run schemes.

    From the St. Helens website: ‘reward planning agents who are doing a good job’ – but who decides what a ‘good job’ is? Would one of the local authorities I have successfully challenged in the High Court consider that I am doing a good job? Are the local authorities who persist in printing and rescanning electronic submissions really the best to judge the quality of e-planning work?

    There is also the practicality of signing up to dozens of local schemes when you work across a large number of LPA areas.

    I also have major concerns in light of the finite nature of resources available to planning departments and their fair distribution. If accredited agents are being given a ‘Fast track’ service, isn’t the implication that others are being given an unnecessarily ‘Slow track’ service? If a local authority can perform better for a few, shouldn’t they perform better for all?

    Surely it is better to use the time saved by better quality e-applications to support those struggling to migrate to the new way of working, rather than to penalise them? If the accredited agent scheme gives a commercial advantage to its members, doesn’t that increase the financial pressure on non-members and consequently tend to lead to less expenditure on training and development?

    Let’s have a national scheme backed by objective standards and driven by the desire of those involved in the industry to provide a quality service to clients – and not by the desire to win the carrot or avoid the stick.

    • Les permalink

      I suggest we leave as is and set out the reasons why.

      This is based on a common sense approach; this may help the decision makers.

      A) The size of the development. Large

      1. How many UK based (top 30 say) planning consultants submit applications to LPA’s and do not get their application validated, after submision. The answer is probably many. Does the portal have statistics on this do LPA’s have statistics on this why not?

      2. Ditto architects.

      At the small extension level it is no different I suspect.

      So why change things it can only get worse.

      I hope not at anyrate.

  2. John Clancy ARIBA MRTPI permalink

    I agree with Marcus. Making a planning application can be made by anyone with or without any qualifications in planning or a related profession. Having worked as a planning officer i know first hand how bad some applications are – drawings incomprehensible, information missing and design a non-starter.

    Perhaps a national register of persons with qualifications and who carry professional indemnity insurance is called for as a first step. Applications from agents who know what planning is would save planning officers a great deal of time and effort and lead to more satisfaction from ‘clients’.

    • Enterprise Planning Services permalink

      I agree with all Marcus says but have doubts about John’s proposals for only persons with qualifications and PII to be on the register.

      Far better in my view that LPS’s use only qualified officers to deal with plannings applications instead of the promoted administrative technicians I generally have to deal with on a day to day basis.

      LPA’s should put their own house in order before trying to impement a register on which only qualified and insured practictioners can be placed.

      Bob Griffiths

      • Les Brown permalink

        I have found that the new planning procedures, checklists, have frustrated planning consultants and in the end it is the LPA admin staff that have not been mentored properly.

        If admin do not have technical drawing/architectural qualifications no wonder most cannot interpret the drawings submitted; no amount of accredited lists of consultants will help. A qualification exam for admin staff would help them help the dire crisis in planning.

  3. Waverley operated a fast track service before 1 App but we have re-launched it in the last few weeks with the requirement that the agent is signing that the application complied with National and Local requirements for that type of application. It is registered than on minimal checks and we have list of accredited agents available. These are agents who have got 3 applications valid in a row and maintain that standard. The application is not given any special priority other than registration.
    In return we offer quarterly meetings, a newsletter and training sessions on items that give problems. Agents attempting accreditation can make use of our validation service where they can phone me or come and see me with the application before it comes in so that we can pick up errors and ommisions at an early stage and give advice on exact requirements for that application.
    Raising the knowledge base of agents improves the quality of the submissions. There will allways be the problem of the one off applicant but validation surgeries help.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Val,
      do you think PARSOL standards have a role to play here either in their current or an updated form?
      Chris

      • Val Jacobi permalink

        Parsol standards can be of help but it is difficult finding the balance between going into too much specific detail which may seem to require more information (and more costs) for the applicant than is needed, and, gereralised advice which may mean a particular item is required but ommitted from the application leading to delays.
        Allowing the LA’s more options and free choice in local requirements might help. Waverley is very specific on particular circumstances when the extra information is required, the generic comment “when required by the application” that some LA’s have gone for on local requirement lists is incredibly unhelpful and should be stopped.
        A good example is a change of use application, c of u from A1 to A2 with no operational development -if the whole of the building is being changed, never used to require floor plans or elevations although the National Requirements now indicate they should be supplied. We would however need floor plans if the building was in mixed use or the change was to a dwelling.
        A good relationship with the local planning agents where they know who to contact at a particular LA if they have a specific query on requirements has to be a starting point.
        Refering the one off applicant to a valadation service might also assist.

  4. Hey many of us full time agents already send in good quality applications and have done for years! However we get frustrated by the way they are handled by the LPAs particularly when they allow through sub standards apps in shorter time! Personally I would like to see all planning application drawings with the name of the person who drew them clearly visible, and all registration staff working to consistent standards.
    I don’t believe such a scheme would work anyway as registration staff are under such pressure that they are simply fire fighting quite often, and would not be able to operate it.

  5. Marcus’ comments are spot on! The ability to accredit should not be allowed to become subject, potentially, to local politics and prejudices.

    I am actively involved in the structuring of an accreditation process for conservation specialists and this process (generated by client body request) is responded to by contributing istitutions – a far better methodology, I suggest, than leaving accreditation to those, perhaps, less able to make balanced evaluation.

    Here in North Norfolk we run an ‘Agents’ Forum’ every three months or so where agents and officers meet and discuss issues and policy. It is a particularly productive process and results in better understanding of each others issues and problems resulting in, I suggest, better structured applications by agents who contribute to the Forum.

    Latham and Egan both recommended better communication and better co-operation in all who contribute to the built environment. So often this recommendation has been ignored and an adversarial approach still pertains. Better to enter a dialogue between allies than adverseries, this only being achievable by better understanding of each others’ point of view.

    Killian Pretty suggested (paraphrased) that the planning system was far too complicated and, as a result, self-serving. It has, of late and in my opinion, had to become self-serving because of the impact of too excessive a tinkering of the process by central government (tinkering on tinkering in effect) such that the whole process has become far too faceted, complicated and introspective. Each separate facet generating its own focus, culture and structure to the detriment of the whole. It has become a management response centred on the management of an increasingly un-managable process.

    It has also become (my interpretation) far too focused on passing on the costs burdens of its own complications to the user sector.

    Barry Bridgwood

  6. PortalDirector permalink

    Here’s the latest thinking.
    The scheme would be a national voluntary scheme.
    An Agent would submit applications to participating LPAS.
    Once an agreed number have been submitted to the agreed standard the agent would become accredited.
    The agent would attach that accreditation to any subsequent application to any participating LPAs who would recognise it and act accordingly.

    Non participating agents might disregard it but would at least benefit from better quality applications. This would clearly only work with a nationally agreed standard rather than local variations.

    Whilst many agents already submit good quality applications this would at the very least give them recognition for doing so and at best might ease transition through registration and validation.

    Issues still to be settled include what will consitute a good quality application and the role of PARSOL standards and who is going to manage the scheme if it progresses through pilot into live operation.

    We have a good number of LPAS and agents willing to trial the idea so we hope to run pilots in the autumn.

    What do you think?
    Chris

    • Maybe I’m missing something but you don’t say what the point of such a scheme would be. OK it would be pleasing to be accredited I guess but then what? Are you saying that accredited apps would be fast tracked and if so how would that work? The fact is that registration departments appear to be struggling to cope even now, they are often understaffed, standards of acceptance vary from desk to desk and at my LPA applications are taking so long to validate that they are sending out letters to agents informing them of this after their app has been received for two or three weeks! As I said above many agents already go to great lengths to submit professional and accurate applications, but all that effort can be frustrated when registration departments aren’t operated in a businesslike and efficient way.

  7. Inter County Surveys permalink

    Hi

    It is may opinion that until LPA’s get their own house in order regarding PAR Checklists both National and Local, Biodiversity Checklists, and get ‘e’ side of the application process correct, we as agents stand no chance. Many of the e-forms on LPA web-sites just don’t work properly.

    On an Full Plans application for a stable in a middle of a field, why on the PAR checklist, against the item for noise assessment, can one not put ‘Not Applicable’? Come on LPA’s get with the programe.

    I very much agree with the comments above to have only qualified officers to deal with plannings applications instead of the administrative technicians we all generally have to deal with on a day to day basis, who would not know a good drawing if it bit them in the buttocks!

    LPA’s should put their own house in order before trying to impement a register on which only qualified and insured practictioners can be placed.

    A National Accreditation Scheme would be just another quango.

    Paul Flippance

  8. Nicholas Hall permalink

    I agree with the penultimate paragraph of Barry Bridgwoods’s comments. I’ve been a qualified Architectural Technologist for around 45 years (since the initial formation of SAAT), preparing Applications for private individuals and Companies for both Planning and Building Regulations. And – although I say it myself – I reckon I’m one of the ‘good guys’, producing clear drawings, pre-consulting with Planning Admin. sections. Trying to do the best possible job for the client.- All from ‘personal recommendation’ work, so I must be getting something right!
    It seems to me there are two fundamental issues here :-
    Why should anybody be forced/coerced into using a professional (at a cost) if they don’t want to. It has always been a ‘joke’ (but important principle) that anybody wishing to submit scribbled drawings on toilet paper was free to do so if they wished (or couldn’t afford a Professional), and it was up to the Planners and Building Inspectors to guide and help them through the process. It seems that there are attempts to supercede this by passing for and more cost onto consumers for poorer and poorer service.
    Secondly (to the point of Mr Bridgwood’s paragraph), The continual ‘tinkering’ and extra work and steep learning curves are driving most of us Professionals demented ! And very few can be perceived to have any benefit to the Planning process. Indeed, our Planners (poor loves !) are themselves not able to get to grips with continuous new requirements, – many don’t even understand them themselves, even after briefings.
    It’s time to call a halt. Stop this continuous (and frequently make-work) process of ‘change’ – which takes 6 months to adapt to, then changes again, and let the whole system settle for some years before any further changes. – One Applications vetting admin. Officer (very experienced)in my local PA is tearing his hair out trying to do his job, but spending all his time trying to explain to Agents the new D & A Statements, new forms etc. etc. – I’ve just used half a good sized forest preparing 11 drawings plus an 11 page Application form plus a 5 page D & A for a staightforward listed building App. (most of it in the name of ‘Conservation’ I believe !)
    Sorry Chris, but you have a vested interest. I try not to be a reactionary, but, It’s all too far, too fast, and to very doubtful public benefit in my view. – More changes in the last few years than I’ve seen in a working lifetime.

  9. MANSEL THOMAS permalink

    Oh dear another way for the fat overpaid so called professionals to extract even more money out of their clients. People like myself who have worked competently in the industry for 35 years plus will be squeezed out of the market by a government taking advice from so called experts feathering their own nests.
    Has anyone priced how much these changes would cost and who is going to pay for it. Surely some politician [EXPERT IN EXPENSIVES] can see that the clients would not have any benifits from the introduction of such proposals.
    Is the existing system so bad, I am sure that there are much more pressing issues than this. YOURS EXASPERATED MANSEL THOMAS

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hello Mansell,
      the idea is not to feather any nests but to recognise that applications vary in quality. If an LPA can identify an applicant that regularly submits good quality applications in advance, they can hopefully spend less time on checking and validating their applications with the knock-on benefit of freeing up time to spend on the more complex applications.
      Take advertising applications for example. If a company only ever submits applications for hoardings and always provides exactly what is required, with maps to the correct scale, the correct fee and perfect plans then surely it follows they could be a candidate for accreditation, freeing up officers time to do other things. There are any number of examples of application types where this measure might introduce some efficiency, ATMs, conservatories, shop fronts, change of use etc.

      By the way the pilots will be run in 2 geographic areas with a large number of LPA’s of different size and type.
      I hope this clarifies things a little.
      Chris

  10. R A Humphreys FRICS, DipTP, MRTPI, Dip UD,IHBC permalink

    I spend a considerable amount of time and effort getting some of the Authoriies I deal with to accept that they have a valid application as submitted. Never mind about acrediting agents, a major imprevment to the system would be to have would “propotionality ” applied to the scale and type of application. (A review of validation checklists – both national and local would not be amiss either)

    Recently I was met with a demand for “street elevations” on a change of use where no operational developemnt was involved – patently ridiculous – yet I had to fight the Authority on the point – eventually having to speak to its Chief Planner to resolve the issue. Once Authorities behave reasoanbly I might have more sympathy about the failings of some agents and their submissions.

    As to acrediting agents. I am fundamentally opposed to this notion. Every application should be treated equally irresepective of applicant or agent. Giving any sought of priority, even in the speed of registration, to a favoured agent is wholly improper and unfair. There is therefore no case on grounds of application processing benefit to either party.

    Moreover, as noted, Local Authoriies have not in practice “cornered the market”, in my experience, in determining whether an application is valid. Many of them are simply not competent to judge. An “acredited” scheme would simply favour those agents who either for expediency or ignorance give an Authority exactly what it asks for irespevctive of the validity of the request. Agents who argue are unlikely to easily accredited.

    If other agents want or feel the need for some sought of endoresment of their abilities, I suggest they try a suitable qualifcation and or gain a reputation as a compotent professional

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Mr Humphreys,
      is it not possible to be both a competent professional, and one who recognising that the system may be flawed or variable in its local application gives an LPA what it wants in order to gain permission in the most expedient way for their client?

      It is hoped that the scheme will reduce the admin burden by recognising valid applications at the earliest possible point. The benefit will flow to the remainder of applications by releasing more resource to deal with them thereby levelling the playing field – in short everybody wins.
      Chris

      • R A Humphreys FRICS, DipTP, MRTPI, Dip UD,IHBC permalink

        Mr Kendall

        An Authority should be given what it needs not what it “wants”. Developing a system which is flawed and needs agents to be expedient so as to gain permissiion – never mind the legitimacy of the information request is fundamnetlaly unsatisfactory. There is an unecessary cost and burden falling on applicants. Yes I will be expedient in an individaul case but this does NOT make it right.

        You acknowledge the system as flawed and variable. How then does a National scheme administered by various participating lpa’s create any sort of consistant evalutaion of agents submissions? I agree some agents may well need “educating” to make valid applications but acrediting is not necessarily the best method and unless it is centrally administered, it is likely to produce very variable results.

        The “tick box” mentality is becomng all to prevalent in the planning system. There is no real substitute for understanding the nature of the considerations which an Authority should properly give to a proposal and then providing inforamtion to help them do that.

        Although, you have not been inundated with crictical commnets about agent acrediatation, I know that in my network of experienecd practitoners (all of us ex lpa’s)the views and reservatons I have expressed are shared.

  11. Can I say, as someone who has spent 15 years validating planning applications but without formal qualifications in the field, that what constitutes a valid planning application has got more and more complicated over the years and that some very simple forms of development now require information well in excess of that which is really needed to understand the issues involved.
    However the level of some application submitted, both before and since 1 App, can be very frustrating. Drawings submitted with an application should show what is new work, floor plans should match elevations and everything should scale consistently. The number of applications I have invalidated because I do not have a clue what the application is for, where it is going and what size it is, is past measuring. That is the level of application that we need to improve. I would contend with the remark that a planning officer would be able to accept drawings of that nature because they would understand them better!

  12. Colin Chandler MRTPI permalink

    I am sure that if the question were asked of agents, qualified or otherwise, to name LPA’s that offered a quick efficient and satisfactory registration process, there would be few contenders for ‘accreditation’.

    The differing approach by LPA’s towards validating applications is immense. There are many officers on the ‘front line’ who are extremely capable and despite everything remain very helpful. But it is the tick-box culture, rather than individuals being able to use their years of experience and commonsense, that is driving us all to distraction. What makes matters worse is that time constraints on planning officers mean that of the volumes of reports provided, at not inconsiderable cost to applicants so that boxes can be ticked, will probably result in only the executive summaries being read.

    The idea that you need to have 3 successful submissions to get accreditation at a particular authority is tantamount to discrimination. The potential agent who is highly successful elsewhere, has to contend with an authority where his expertise no longer counts for anything – potentially denying him/her clients in that authorities area, who feel they would do better by only using ‘accredited agents’.

    The Planning Portal champions the electronic application process – an ideal that is laudable in theory but in the real world is being undermined by LPA’s having to produce endless hard copies simply because the wheels of change frustrate the objective. Most importantly, there remains a high proportion of society who are not only struggling with the present electronic age but find the concept of reading drawings on screen and wading through ever increasing lists of detailed reports, a minefield. I know this all to well, as more and more I am being asked to advise/act for third parties who struggle to pick their way through the often shambolic myriad of offerings on Council websites. I would respectfully suggest that the Portal would better serve us all by making the electronic side of planning process far more customer focused than it is today, rather than Mr Kendall championing yet another tick box about agent status.

    As others have asked, just what justifiable purpose is really served by accreditation? Better we revert to a system with people experienced people like Val Jacobi being allowed to use their expertise to weed out the good from the bad. In that way both job and customer satisfaction would be better served.

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi Colin,
      thanks for your feedback and delighted you are joining the conversation.
      I agree with much that you and the previous correspondent say however there are a couple of points I’d like to address.

      Firstly a clarification, the idea is that the accreditation would be transferable and recognised at any participating authority. The accreditation would be for qualifying applications at one or more participating LPAs, in this way the agent would have the opportunity to become accredited regardless of whether they usually submit to one authority or many.
      More than 40 LPAs have expressed an interest in piloting the scheme and we will pilot in regional clusters for maximum effect.

      Re “the tick-box culture” I’d appreciate a little clarification. Are you referring to validation check lists? if so; only the fee, site location plan etc are nationally mandated, everything else is decided locally.

      I take your point about customer focus very seriously; that’s why I run this blog, any suggestions you make towards this end will be greatly appreciated.
      Killian Pretty projects are attempting to deal with many of the issues you raise including improving the quality of LPA websites. We are doing our best to simplify and explain and we’re developing tools to make things like viewing and scaling drawings on screen more acceptable.

      I agree about the constraints on officers time and that’s the point of the exercise. I believe that if accreditation enables the automation of even a small part of the workload then we free up officers time to use their experience in a way that adds value rather than pointless admin.

      As for championing the scheme, it’s true I believe this is an opportunity worth exploring, but we are piloting this on behalf of Killian Pretty and this discussion will form part of the evaluation process. We are facilitating the process but it will only progress if LPAs believe it is worthwhile.

      regards,
      Chris

  13. wendy woollaston permalink

    I was a client who was let down firstly by a LPA planning officer who made the original mistake then a privately employed Planning Consultant who had formally been the Principal Planning Officer for my LA and finally by a Senior Planning Inspector. All three did not spot this error in the officer’s report at our appeal that was fatal to our application and which we ourselves did not unfortunately find until the 6 week period for challenging a decision was over.

    I see that now an LA has to stay with the comments made for the report to committee and not change the report to support a refusal of permission by their councillors when it goes to appeal. This would have prevented the error that affected us from occurring but I have to say an accredited scheme seems a waste of time to me as all of those who failed us were RTPI members.

  14. Tom Allbrighton permalink

    Surely just MRTPI / MRICS / RIBA would suffice?

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi Tom,
      that won’t catch companies who submit large numbers of similar applications such as Outdoor Advertisers, Conservatory builders, shop front installers etc.
      Chris

      • Marcus Galey permalink

        Just dropping back into the conversation (having finally got a minute to spare), I would like to just expand Chris’s point. The idea is to have a scheme that recognises competence in preparing and submitting applications – it’s a shame but membership of the RIBA/RICS/RTPI is not an automatic guarantee of this.

        Much of my practice involves reviewing previous applications and experience has shown that formal qualifications relate to the examined topic(s) and do necessarily transfer to the planning process in the real world. I have seen many good applications by ‘plan drawers’ (and I do not mean this in derogatory way) with few formal qualifications, but tremendous experience – particularly in their local area. This applies equally to the ‘Outdoor Advertisers, Conservatory builders, shop front installers’ mentioned by Chris. This is why I would support a scheme that is performance based and recognises that ability is not synonymous with qualifications

        Marcus

  15. David Walker permalink

    Hi,

    Can anyone tell me the status of the proposed trial of the agent acreditation scheme?

    • PortalDirector permalink

      Hi David,
      we facilitated the trials in two regions and reported back on progress to the Killian Pretty programe Board.
      I’m not certain where they are now but will ask my colleague Adam Telford to respond when he returns from leave.
      Best regards,
      Chris

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