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Planners need systems too (and how to implement one)

In the world of planning decisions, tradition often reigns supreme. Experienced planners have typically developed their own approaches over time and new planners slowly follow suit through trial and error.

While this approach can work, it lacks a systematic foundation. This lack of system can lead to:

  • Inconsistency: Planning quality can vary depending on the planner's experience and approach.

  • Inefficiency: Without a clear roadmap, tasks take longer and require more rework.

  • Misunderstandings and errors: Disorganised planning processes can lead to confusion and costly mistakes.

These problems are being further exacerbated by recent trends:

Planners Must Consider More

As time progresses there is an increasing body of knowledge on issues to be managed by planning frameworks. This leads to a growing number of considerations which is increasing the scope and complexity of each planning decision and creating more room for error.

The Legal Landscape Tightens

Traditionally, planning decisions haven't faced the same level of legal scrutiny as other fields. However, this is rapidly changing. The threat of legal action now looms over every decision, demanding a higher level of precision and defensibility.

Planners Must Increasingly Play a Lawyer’s Role

The increasing complexity of modern planning frameworks require interpretation and application of legal principles. This thrusts planners into a role that often resembles that of a lawyer.

A significant element of a lawyer’s training is spent learning to apply systematic approaches and frameworks to cases and judgments. Planners, who traditionally focus on environmental outcomes, rarely receive such training. But planners are now under scrutiny to apply the rule consistently and correctly.

Templates Aren't Enough

Most planning teams rely on templates to guide decision-making, however, in light of the trends above these one-size-fits-all approaches often fall short.

The specific details and facts of each case often result in fundamentally different assessment pathways and demand a more nuanced approach. Cutting corners and trying to over simplify this process creates additional risk of process errors and legal challenges.

The Systematic Solution

Planning teams are increasingly facing technical decision-making processes without the necessary training or systematic tools. Implementing a systematic approach is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Just as lawyers rely on defined processes to ensure consistent and accurate legal application, planners can leverage systematic frameworks to:

  • Ensure Consistent and Defensible Decisions: A systematic approach reduces subjectivity and strengthens the legal defensibility of your plans.

  • Navigate Legal Complexities: A clear process helps planners navigate the intricacies of planning law and regulations.

  • Minimise Errors and Delays: A structured approach reduces the risk of costly mistakes and delays caused by misunderstandings and rework.

The Power of Systems

There are countless examples of humans relying on systems to make processes more efficiently and produce higher quality outputs. This is the basis for much of the increase in living standards we have experienced in modern times.

Traditionally systems have been reserved for the material world with manufacturing (such as production lines) but increasingly these are being applied to knowledge work and white collar industries.

Similarly, a systematic approach to planning can:

  • Increase Consistency: A defined process ensures all planners consider the same factors, leading to more consistent outcomes.

  • Boost Efficiency: By streamlining tasks, you'll free up time for critical thinking and analysis.

  • Enhance Clarity: A structured process reduces confusion and ensures everyone is on the same page.

How do systematic approaches look applied to planning decisions?

There are many examples of frameworks being applied in the legal system to systematise case analysis and decisions. We model planning decisions in the following framework:

Step 1: Gather Facts (Inputs)

Objective: Assemble all relevant information and materials related to the planning application. This includes:

  • Application documents (drawings, reports, etc.)

  • Site surveys and environmental data

  • Historical records and development plans

Step 2: Identify the Assessment Pathway

Objective: Determine the appropriate rules and regulations triggered by the application's characteristics.

Action: Analyse the application in light of the planning framework. This identifies the relevant sections, policies, and procedures that create a unique "assessment pathway" for evaluating the proposal.

Step 3: Define Issues (Decision Points)

Objective: Identify specific areas where planning decisions need to be made.

Action: Based on the assessment pathway, pinpoint issues such as:

  • Non-compliance with specific regulations

  • Justification for the application

  • Specific activities requiring approval

Step 4: Make Decisions

Objective: For each identified issue, make a clear and informed decision.

Action: Consider relevant policies, and arrive at a reasoned choice for each issue. These individual decisions contribute to the overall judgement on the application.

Step 5: Document Rationale (Outputs)

Objective: Clearly justify how you responded to each issue / decision point.

Action: Prepare a comprehensive rationale that explains the reasoning behind each decision. This includes:

  • Highlighting relevant regulations and policies applied.

  • Summarising the evidence considered during decision-making.

  • Clearly outlining the thought process leading to each conclusion.

Embrace the System, Improve Your Planning

By following a systematic approach, you can ensure your planning decisions are:

  • Logical: Emotions are removed from the equation, leading to objective choices.

  • Transparent: Everyone involved can understand the thought process behind each decision.

  • Defensible: A clear rationale provides a solid foundation for your decision.

In addition to the above, a framework creates a platform for continuous improvement. For any errors or mistakes surfacing at review stage, you can identify at which step of the process the issue arose and introduce corrective action at the root source.


While some planners might resist change, a well-designed system is a powerful tool. It can streamline your workflow, improve the quality of your plans, and ultimately, lead to better outcomes. So, don't be afraid to embrace a systematic approach. It might not be as romantic as following your gut, but it will surely make you a more effective planner.

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