Caution urged on mergers

Proposals to merge planning departments have been met with enthusiasm by consultants but with scepticism by officers.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference this week, communities secretary Eric Pickles told delegates that councils should share services and work across boundaries to drive down costs.

He asked: "Is it really necessary for councils to have separate education or planning departments or, heaven forbid, separate press offices?"

Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council share a chief executive as well as senior management and have worked closely on their core strategies.

Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Councils have a joint head of planning and regeneration. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils also share a planning service head.

Colin Buchanan director of planning and urban design Hugh Roberts said: "This would be positive should it be allowed to assist fast-track development decisions."

He added: "With local enterprise partnerships now emerging across borough and county boundaries, the combining of certain planning authority functions can only enhance an impression to the private investor community that local parochialism is becoming subsidiary to business interests for areas defined beyond town or city-regions."

Indigo Planning chairman Simon Neate agreed: "More joined-up and simplified working across planning departments is to be welcomed as long as it doesn't harm the quality and speed of decision-making. A major question, however, is how this approach would sit with the wider localism agenda."

But Planning Officers Society spokesman John Silvester has urged caution: "We recognise the imperative to reduce costs and yet retain effective public services. The society is preparing a range of good practice guidance, including information about shared services."

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