Council standard raiser

Coventry planning chief Tracy Darke is bringing the lessons of a radical culture change at her previous authority to bear as the city faces the new political climate.

Tracy Darke
Tracy Darke

At Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, Tracy Darke helped develop working practices that took the department to number one in the country.

After less than a year as development manager at Coventry City Council, she has used the same approaches to take the authority from 288th to second in the performance rankings.

Darke explains that the change that brought about Hinckley and Bosworth's rise originated with the appointment of a new director in her department. "He was from a building control background and had a different perspective on planning.

"What he had done before was focused on marketing and customer services. He brought those qualities with him and made us start to think differently about our approach to the customer," she recalls.

She invited the Planning Advisory Service to carry out a peer review and on the back of that looked at the way things were being done.

"We started to focus on performance, balancing the quality versus quantity arguments," she recalls. Inevitably, topping the table caught the attention of other authorities keen to see what the Leicestershire council was doing differently.

Darke says the learning process went both ways and her authority was able to learn from others as it continued to look for ways to improve. Mapping the processes planners went through proved useful. "When you get a group of people together you realise that there are different ways of dealing with an application," she says.

Such differences in approach run the risk of losing focus on the customer. By stripping processes back and challenging what was being done, Darke found that it was possible to build up leaner and more efficient ways of working.

Another key change was that officers took responsibility for their own workload and deadlines without having to be prompted, understanding the common aim.

Darke moved to Coventry, her home city and somewhere she knows well, at a time of great change. American masterplanners Jerde have produced a new plan for the entire city centre and the council is working on various developments.

In moving schemes forward, she has been able to apply the same development management approach taken at her previous authority.

She was convinced that the techniques could be successfully transplanted and bring about similar improvements. These processes are exactly what are needed in the current economic climate, she maintains. "There isn't the time or the opportunity to do things in the way we've always done them. This is about making processes more efficient," she maintains.

There has inevitably been a slow-down of development in Coventry, but Darke argues that now is a good time to be putting plans in place. "There are a lot of things that are being prepared so we're able to take them forward as soon as the industry picks up," she says.

As well as economic difficulties, the changes to planning heralded by the government presage further challenges. Again, however, Darke sees opportunities.

"We were in the advanced stages of our core strategy and it has given us an opportunity to listen to the views of the people of Coventry about the development they want," she says.

Having gone through the process of working on a core strategy once, she suggests, local people feel they now have another opportunity. "We can reflect and learn on what we've done before. Perhaps with the change in government, it's given us time to think about things a bit differently," she reflects.

She admits to some anxiety about how national policy will develop, but adds that it is good to be made to stop and think about why things are done as they are and ask the public what they think.

In her view, Coventry is in a strong position thanks to opportunities to develop brownfield sites, which have space for about 19,500 homes. "How many more we need after that is something that has to go through a consultation process," she says.

"It may be that we need more. If people feel they've had more input and engagement about where the housing goes and know brownfield sites will be developed first, they will then consider what greenfield sites will need to be developed further."

With the localism bill about to begin its parliamentary passage, further refinement of the government's approach to development management in the offing and the development industry still on the ropes, it is an open question how effective the decentralised approach will be.

In the meantime, Darke remains optimistic that she can make the most of the opportunities presented.

CV

Age: 46

Family: Married with one daughter

Education: Diploma in town and country planning, Birmingham Polytechnic; diploma in management studies, De Montfort University

Interests: Running, walking, gardening, her animals

2010: Development manager, Coventry City Council

2005: Planning and building control manager, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council

2004: Development control manager, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council

1985: Technician rising to planning officer, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council

1980: Quantity surveying technician, Coventry City Council.


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