Local government planning services: size doesn’t matter, it’s flexibility that counts

Exploring the growing trend of dynamic commissioning for planning services and why it could be an answer to recruitment headaches with Andy Foster, business development director, Capita Local Public Services

Despite the perpetual turbulence that surrounds us in the sector, the local government mantra has been consistent for a while now; growth, growth and more growth. 

This means different things to different people but in this context, I’m referring to local economic growth or community wealth, as it is sometimes known. Growth of course doesn’t come easy, it takes, vision, ambition, community support, civic leadership and of course teams of diligent professionals. 

The Local Government Association's (LGA), Growing Places – Building Public Services for the Future (2017) paper published last year reminds us that just 30,000 affordable homes were built in the previous 12 months - the lowest in 20 years - meaning a young person is now half as likely to get on the housing ladder as they were two decades ago. 

Yet at the same time, real terms spending on a key service, such as planning and development, to unlock this dilemma, has reduced according to the National Audit Office (2014) by 46% according to the National Audit Office. One in ten councils reported to the LGA Workforce Survey 16-17 (2018) that they had a blanket recruitment freeze within the last twelve months and three quarters of all councils reported difficulties in recruitment and retention. 

There is no doubt that when it comes to professional services, town planners are in hot demand and in short supply. The LGA's 'Delivering through people – local government workforce strategy' (2010) paper tells us that in terms of posts that are most difficult to recruit to, planners sit third in the list, second only to children and adult social workers. 

Many local authorities tackle this through use of market supplements and other benefits whereas others try and ‘grow their own.’ But one thing is for sure, councils are all 'fishing in the same pond' and a win for one local authority will only serve as a loss for another.   

At this point I should of course declare an interest, Capita has been delivering planning services for over 15 years both on a short and long-term basis and we too need to recruit from the same pool. We are exposed to the same recruitment challenges as local government and in turn, this has forced us to think differently about how we support councils with these challenges and a model I would argue serves as a blueprint for the sector. 

It would be an unusual service that experienced equal demand from applicants month-on-month throughout the year, so why do we try to operate on largely constant staffing profiles throughout the year? Our customers are changing the way they operate from a traditional position of being completely self-contained to a much more flexible and dynamic system of accessing resource.    

We support local government by filling in the gaps when demand outstrips supply.  Its not just about one-offs or a short term approach though. In fact some of our customers, such as Trafford Council have been using this service for nearly ten years.  This allows them to operate to a smaller core of permanent professionals who often focus on the more complicated and sensitive projects and let our teams take care of the more routine end of the spectrum often at short notice. 

Of course, it’s not just about servicing the needs of those who find themselves with vacancies.  As resource cuts start to bite, councils often find themselves with a dilemma of needing resource for particular projects that wouldn’t require a full time employee (FTE). We find ourselves working more and more with district councils who need to tap into additional resource at times of higher demand but for them recruiting a FTE wouldn’t make financial sense. 

A ‘one-to-one’ service however doesn’t really help the sector deal with too few qualified officers to go around, so we are changing our model and introducing technology, so we can help more councils.  We have found that around 70% of the duties connected to a planning application process can be delivered ‘off-site’ which is why we deliver a large amount of support from one of our four hubs based in London, the North East, the North West and Belfast.  Here we have teams of planners who act as case officers for numerous clients around the country.  This ‘one to many’ approach allows us to balance the load across several officers which allows us to maximise use of available capacity and flex resource in the event of holidays, sickness etc.  This creates resilience and ensures continuity of service to the client. 

Technology will also play an increasingly important role going forward. For processes that are transactional in nature we are developing solutions that have increasing reliance on automation and artificial intelligence that will eventually free up qualified professionals to work on activities that rely on human intervention. 

In a sector that spends just over £1 billion on planning and development services every year (according to the Department For Communications and Local Government: Revenue Account Budget 17-18 for England), it is time to start think differently about how we access scarce professionals. People will always be crucial to planning services but its how we use them that will keep us sustainable going forward.  Lack of capacity should never be a barrier to growth. 

To find out more about our work with other local authorities check out our case studies on South East Lincolnshire and The Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead or find out more about our planning resilience service. 

Providing planning resilience support to The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead

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By adding extra capacity, The Royal Borough of Windsor was able to maintain a high level of service to its customers by reducing planning application delays from backlogs.

The Royal Borough of Windsor

Providing planning enforcement support to Trafford Council

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'At the end of the day the crucial factor for the host is the quality, competence and attitude of the individual. We found that Brian Johnson was excellent in all these regards. The support and communication to us as the host authority from Capita has always been of a high standard'

Graeme Levy ,Regulatory services manager, Trading Standards & Licensing, Trafford Council

Providing planning resilience support to Warrington Borough Council

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The sheer volume of planning applications dealt with by Capita has been very impressive and helped us immensely during a period when our planning section was under severe pressure

Richard Evans, Principal Planner, Warrington Borough Council