Project: North Wales minerals and waste joint planning team
Organisations involved: Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gywnedd, Isle of Anglesey and Powys County Councils, Conwy and Wrexham County Borough Councils, Snowdonia National Park Authority
The Welsh Government has tasked the country's planners with making effective collaboration a cornerstone of its reformed planning system. In its draft Planning Bill, published last December, the administration stressed the need for increased efficiency across the public sector.
In particular, it endorsed the formal merger of planning services. Though this may sound drastic, collaborative agreements between some councils have already been effective for some time. A merger of minerals and waste planning services across north Wales could become a model for other local planning authorities looking to merge services.
The collaboration originally involved four county councils, two county boroughs and the Snowdonia National Park Authority. Minerals and waste work in the northern part of Powys has since been bought under its aegis. Previously, the small size of planning teams at the individual councils meant it was rare for them to employ full-time staff with expertise in minerals and waste.
The north Wales councils began investigating the possibility of setting up a shared service for their minerals and waste planning work in the mid 2000s. After a series of large applications came in, obliging the recipient authorities to buy in expensive specialist consultancy expertise, talks began in earnest.
Flintshire County Council was identified as the lead authority, since it had the largest minerals and waste team of all the councils. Its head of planning, Andrew Farrow, says: "The two things you need are commitment and capacity. A joint team is quite a thing to organise on top of your day job."
The councils decided to hire an independent consultant, Ian Simpson, for 18 months to define the roles and the scope of the service. This post was funded through the Welsh Government's planning improvement fund. Other resources needed to implement the shared service include the time of councils' human resources and legal teams.
The service began operations in April 2011. The team of seven specialist waste and minerals planners, employed on behalf of the participating authorities by Flintshire Council, is based in Mold and Bangor. It writes reports on applications, carries out site monitoring, helps develop policy and undertakes enforcement. Decisions are still taken by planning committees in each council.
The service is funded through fees paid by each of the councils. They pay either an annual fee, based on the amount of minerals and waste activity they have had in the past, or a daily rate for those with relatively small volumes of minerals and waste work.
Farrow says that one of the biggest challenges was that none of the authorities had the same IT systems, leading to technical difficulties in sharing documents such as consultation responses and letters of objection. He admits that the councils have yet to find a permanent solution to this issue. Documents have to be either emailed or forwarded by post.
The joint team also faced a communication challenge in ensuring that everyone involved could communicate effectively with the public and the minerals and waste industries. "A lot of this was about getting the message across to front desk staff so they knew where to direct enquiries," says Farrow. He says getting staff to understand the set-up was less difficult - in a relatively small planning community, messages can easily be cascaded down through heads of planning.
Other local authorities sharing the service say they have seen several benefits. Graham Boase, head of planning at Denbighshire County Council, explains that minerals and waste work had previously been quite unpredictable to budget for due to the infrequent nature of applications. "The joint team arrangement has ironed out the peaks and troughs and makes the budget consistent. It's about cost avoidance," Boase says.
Farrow believes the model employed by the north Wales shared minerals and waste service could be used for other specialist areas of planning, such as renewable energy applications.
Indeed, the seven founding authorities have already begun to collaborate on a regional methodology on how to implement the Community Infrastructure Levy. "The minerals and waste work has given us the confidence to work together in other areas," says Boase.