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Quality Assessment in Development Control - Research Findings

DescriptionThe objective was to develop meaningful and constructive methods for auditing the quality of local authority decision-making in relation to planning applications.
ISBN0 748 66005 4
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateJanuary 27, 1999
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No 42 (1997)
Quality Assessment in Development Control
Montagu Evans, Chartered Surveyors (Roger Durman, Martin Drummond and Rachel Gee)
Department of Land Economy, Aberdeen University (Jeremy Rowan-Robinson and William Walton)
ISBN 0-748-66005-4Publisher The Scottish Office
This work was commissioned by the Scottish Office in 1996. The objective was to develop meaningful and constructive methods for auditing the quality of local authority decision-making in relation to planning applications. This was to be achieved partly through a review of the literature on quality assurance in planning, and in particular the response to the Review of the Town and Country Planning System in Scotland, and partly through field work to assess the likely practical implications of different approaches to quality audit. The Report sets out the Consultants' own views on these matters.
Main findings
  • quality in development control is about satisfying the needs of the customers of the system whose needs encompass both service arid development objectives;
  • objective will be defined partly by the Scottish Office Development Department and partly by planning authorities who should also involve the customers;
  • the purpose of quality assessment is to judge how tar planning authorities are meeting these service and development objectives and what needs to be done to remedy any shortfall;
  • any assessment of the extent to which objectives are being met must recognise the differences between authorities;
  • quality assessment having regard to service and development objectives, should focus on inputs, processes and outputs;
  • the monitoring and review of quality should be a continuous process, undertaken by planning authorities involving customers through focus groups and with support from a central audit unit at the Scottish Office;
  • planning authorities should publish an annual report of findings of the quality monitoring and review process over the previous year.
The Background
Quality in planning is currently a focus of interest on both sides of the border. In England a wide ranging initiative on Quality in Town and Country Planning has been considering how best the distinctive character and viability of cities, towns and villages can be safeguarded and the importance of good design has been given particular emphasis. Design issues have long been regarded as important in Scotland. Research on quality in design is the subject of research being funded by the Scottish Office Development Department in its 1997/98 research programme.
However, quality in planning is about more than good design. It is about the objectives of the planning process, about how they are being implemented and about whether the customers of the system are satisfied. This study is one outcome of the Review of the Town and Country Planning System in Scotland, begun by a consultation paper: Raising the Standard in 1994. Questions in the paper were directed, amongst other things, at how quality in development control might be assessed. Many of the responses acknowledged the difficulties of measuring quality and some suggested this might be the subject of a separate research initiative. The suggestion was taken up by the Scottish Office and this study was commissioned.
The Study
The study was conducted in two distinct stages:
  • The first stage involved a review of the literature on quality assessment not just in planning but in other spheres such as the construction industry and higher education. Of particular relevance with regard to the planning system was earlier work by the Audit Commission (1992) and by COSLA (1993). The review also involved an analysis of the responses to the Review of the Town and Country Planning System in Scotland: Digest of Responses to Consultation (1995) in so far as they were directed at quality in development control. The literature review enabled some options for quality assessment to be identified for discussion with development control customers.
  • The second stage of the study involved a survey of a sample of users of the system. The sample was drawn from ten towns across Scotland, reflecting high and low growth areas, central belt towns, regional centres and rural area towns. For each town representatives of planning authorities (members and officers) and customers (developers, professional advisers and public interest groups) were contacted. The survey was based on a questionnaire and was conducted partly by interviews, partly by post and partly by telephone. A number of key bodies such as the Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland, the Scottish Housebuilders Association and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland were also contacted.
On the basis of the two stages, the study recommends a method for assessing quality in development control which should:
1. encourage the development of a culture of quality in planning authorities;
2. bring rigour to the assessment of quality;
3. incorporate objectivity into the assessment exercise;
4. acknowledge the constraint on resources.
The Way Forward
The main findings in the Report with regard to quality assessment for development control are discussed below under six headings:
The purpose of quality assessment in development control
  • At one level, quality assessment is about the service provided to customers. Customers have the right to expect a courteous, efficient and accountable development control service which, after appropriate consultations, delivers prompt and consistent decisions. These are the 'service' objectives of development control.
  • However, development control has important 'land use and development' objectives; indeed, they are the justification for the system. Any assessment of quality will be incomplete if it focuses simply on service objectives.
The purpose of quality assessment is to judge the extent to which planning authorities are meeting their service and development objectives and, where they are not, what might be done to improve the position.
Who identifies the objectives
  • A detailed assessment of quality will require a breakdown of the service and development objectives against which judgments about quality can be made. These objectives will be defined in part by the Scottish Office Development Department. Service objectives are typically defined through PANs and development objectives through national planning policy guidelines and through approval of the structure plan.
  • They will also be defined by the planning authorities: service objectives through the development control charter and development objectives through structure and local plans.
  • Customers are already involved in formulating development objectives. They should also be involved, perhaps through focus groups, in setting service objectives.
Variations in quality
  • Quality is in many respects a relative concept. This is true both of service and development objectives. Quality assessment must recognise the different geographic, physical, economic and social circumstances of planning authority areas and the resourcing. Planning authorities will have to be judged more in their own terms than against each other.
Establishing criteria for assessment
  • Sound processes are a necessary condition for quality in development control. Criteria reflecting good processes should be developed for quality assessment.
  • However, sound processes are not a sufficient condition for quality in development control. Quality of outcome is also important and output criteria should also be developed.
  • Furthermore, quality of process and quality of output are related to inputs. Quality assessment will be incomplete unless input criteria are also developed.
  • Detailed input, process and output criteria should be developed by planning authorities to assess their success in achieving service and development objectives. These criteria and the way in which they can be unpacked in practice will vary from authority to authority. The Report gives guidance on criteria and how they might be used in quality assessment.
Method of assessment
1. Planning authorities should introduce internal quality monitoring and review arrangements to fit to their structure and organisation. These arrangements should build on the recommendations in the COSLA Model Charter (1993) and should operate continuously.
2. There should be systematic collection of quantitative and qualitative data on the operation of development control.
3. There should be regular review of such information by customers through the medium of focus groups. The focus groups would meet at six monthly intervals prior to the internal meetings to review the data. The groups would comment on the information, provide a customer perspective on performance and suggest follow up action.
4. There should be regular review meetings involving senior development control staff and the convenor of the development control committee meeting to consider such information. The report suggests that the internal review meeting be held every 6 months and be informed by the thinking of the focus group.
5. A minute of the review meetings with action points should be taken to the development control committee accompanied by minutes of the focus group meetings.
6. The outcome of the assessment should be published in the form of an annual review derived from the minutes of the two internal meetings held during the year and with the minutes of the focus group meetings attached.
Audit unit
There is a role for an expert unit at Central Government level to advise and guide authorities on these arrangements and this was set up by the Scottish Office in May 1997. The unit should advise authorities on setting up quality assessment arrangements, receive a copy of the annual review and draw on experience throughout Scotland to help authorities in tackling weaknesses in quality. Its existence will help to promote customer confidence and, through monitoring what is happening throughout Scotland, it will be able to publicise good practice and promote consistency where this is considered desirable.
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