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01/06/2017

The government's bunker mentality makes for terrible targets

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Illustration: Oivind Hovland

Targets, targets everywhere - nor any chance to meet them. Chris Shepley bemoans the ministerial habit of setting councils up to fail.

“Have you seen the Gazette?” asked Mr Khan while examining his trousers, which were warm and damp after a substandard drying cycle. “It seems they’ve sneaked their reporter into the secret nuclear bunker up the road.”

They were all agog as he explained that the bunker was being used by a small group of target-setters from the Department for Communities and Local Government. Their target was to come up with as many new and challenging targets for local authorities as they could. The Gazette described an underground lair full of whirring machinery, flashing lights, glamorous CLG operatives in sleek overalls gliding around the cavernous space with bundles of randomly generated objectives, and a fearsome Chief Target Setter in a large armchair stroking a white cat.

Security was tight. But apparently one of the bunker’s staff had won two tickets for Macbeth with Jasper Carrott at the Gaiety, and the spotty-faced youth who made up the Gazette’s entire team of reporters had managed to penetrate the ring of steel to deliver the prize.

“Haven’t the council got enough targets?” mused Mrs McTavish. “I don’t think there’s a man alive who’s got enough ink in his cartridge [knowing Mrs McTavish, this was probably not a euphemism] to print out a full list.”

Mrs Braithwaite agreed. “They’ve certainly been successful over the years, these bunker people,” she said. “I was reading the housing white paper in bed last night and it includes even more of them.

"The council struggles to meet its present targets - never mind any new ones"

“For example, it suggests two classics: ‘make clear that on top of the allowance made for windfall sites, at least 10 per cent of sites allocated for residential development in local plans should be sites of half a hectare or less’, which is a bit of a mouthful, and ‘national planning policy should expect local planning authorities to seek a minimum of 10 per cent of all homes on individual sites for affordable home ownership products‘, though only on sites over 10 units or 0.5ha. Which is not very ambitious, to say the least. I think both these fall foul of the launderette list of terrible targets.”

“Let me remind you of some of those,” said Mr Khan. Despite his deficiencies in the trouser-drying department, Mr Khan was hot on modern administrative practices and, while Mrs McTavish wrestled with the powder, he enumerated inter alia: “No 1: targets set nationally for things which should be determined locally: not everywhere is the same as everywhere else. No 3b: Measuring things that can be counted at the expense of equally important things that can’t, e.g. number of houses but not quality or character. And No 7: unintended consequences, e.g. prioritising the wrong thing, or making poor decisions just to meet a deadline.”

“The council struggles to meet its present targets –never mind any new ones,” said Mrs Braithwaite. “For two reasons. One is that there is more work. The other is that there are fewer people. These, taken together, seem to me to be plausible reasons. Oddly enough CLG’s own agency, the Planning Inspectorate, has unsurprisingly been missing targets in recent years, for similar reasons.”

“I noticed the paradoxical fact that the secretary of state has been missing his own targets for dealing with called in and recovered cases,” said Mr Khan, surveying his slightly singed trousers. “Apparently he has a new target (the old one, which a former chief planning inspector tells me they used to have 15 years ago, having presumably been quietly dropped). But it’s been reported that fewer than 20 per cent of cases have been inside the statutory three-month target recently.”

They wondered if the spotty-faced youth could find his way back into the bunker and point this out. 

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

 

Illustration | Oivind Hovland

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