Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Development Management Engineer

One of the most powerful and little-known local highway authority roles is that of the "development management engineer".

It's a role that most people haven't heard of, but it can have such an impact on how developments interact with the highway network, it's something that people need to know more about. This is not to say that the role operates in isolation - that's too simplistic (although it can often operate within a silo).

"Development management" is the friendlier version of "development control", but from a highway authority point of view, there is a need for staff to be involved in the management of the development point of view from an initial enquiry by a developer, through the planning application process and through to the development being delivered on site.

My experience of this process has been from the viewpoint of a developer, a consultant and a highway authority (managing a team with the responsibility). My own experiences from the highway authority point of view were largely positive because my approach was to make sure that I and key members of the team were conversant with planning and transport policy so at the pre-application/ planning application stage, we could give decent and policy compliant advice to developers and planning colleagues (although it frequently irritated some councillors who disagreed with their own policies).

The approach meant that larger planning applications were not a surprise and if a developer decided to depart from policy, then we had the confidence to object. Of course, transport and highway matters are only part of the breadth of considerations needed to properly evaluate a planning application and consents being granted under delegated authority by the chief planner or by the planning committee didn't always go with our view.

Once planning consent was granted, we were there to help the developer get the scheme built where there was an interaction with the highway. This could range from giving some advice on traffic management to service the development all the way to new junctions and significant layout changes which were part of the planning consent.

On the other side of the fence, I have been frustrated by local authority staff who have acted as gatekeepers, but who haven't provided help in navigating the processes - I used to allocate a member of the team at the development phase so the developer only had to deal with one person. My team member would do the internal running around and approval seeking, even to the point where they would book road space for the developer. 

I have also worked with really good local authority staff who embrace the joint working ethic to reach a common aim. The fact that the process can be highly variable is, in my opinion, a barrier and generates inefficiencies for both the highway authority and the developer. The variability comes from how the role is set up within the local authority, the differences in how the same legal requirements processed in different areas and the motivation and support the staff have.

Some authorities have completely separate development management teams which aren't always plugged into the wider corporate policy considerations. Some unitary authorities have highways staff embedded in the planning department which is good from a development point of view, but they are sometimes distant from the projects and operational side of highways management. In some authorities, the development management role is left to junior staff because it can sometimes be repetitive work and some end up with time-served staff who frankly don't put in enough effort because they have a niche that nobody else understands.

I guess many people will be interested in the front end. Just who agreed to yet another awful roundabout which ignores walking and cycling? Why did that fast food outlet get planning consent for an awfully laid out drive-through lane? Why has a new set of traffic signals been built for a housing site with staggered pedestrian crossings?

It's a difficult one to generalise about, but the reasoning should always be rooted in policy. The other thing to look at is if the authority is unitary. Again, it's a generalisation, but with a unitary authority at least the highway and planning functions are in the same organisation. With two-tier arrangements you end up with potential for tension between the planning authority (district council) and highway authority (county council). This often seems worse in cities where a city council is trying to be progressive, but the county council acts as a brake - you certainly hear of stories about rural county councillors being very pro-car to the chagrin of the city councillors.

The development management engineer is also a person with the same prejudices and blinkers as anyone. Some (dare I say at county councils) can be very car-centric people which is shaped by their experiences and by the culture in the authority they work (which comes from the political leadership). These are the places that we see large roundabouts being built because of capacity concerns, rather than compact roundabouts which deal with safety concerns. In fact, the whole issue of ensuring new development doesn't create congestion seems to be driving ever larger highway schemes which attract government funding to enable development which mean places where car ownership is the only transport choice for those to can afford it.

It's unfair to lay all of this at the feet of the development management engineer, but they do have the ability to speak up early and to be right on top of policy. In my opinion, the function should absolutely be carried out by a senior member of staff in order to have clout and influence. For anyone who is interested in better outcomes, it is vital to understand how decisions are made locally and who makes them. This might require a bit of time reading through the consultation papers for a few larger planning applications, obtaining organisational charts from the authority and giving councillors some work in tracking down some of the more opaque parts of the process.

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