How we did it: Fighting back on special measures status

A Leicestershire district is delivering faster decisions through a comprehensive service improvement plan. Susie Sell reports.

Blaby improvers: development services manager James Carpenter and development management team leader Kristy Ingles
Blaby improvers: development services manager James Carpenter and development management team leader Kristy Ingles

Project: Blaby Development Management Improvement Plan

Organisations involved: Blaby District Council

The past year has seen a remarkable turnaround for Blaby District Council. Just 12 months ago, the Leicestershire authority was deemed by ministers to be "poorly performing" in its handling of major applications and it became the first local planning authority to be placed in special measures.

The controversial sanction was imposed last November after the council determined only 15 per cent of major applications within 13 weeks over the two years to June 2013 – well below the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)’s target of 30 per cent. The designation gave developers the option to bypass the council’s planning service and submit major applications directly to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS).

At the time it was placed in special measures, the council had succeeded in developing a core strategy that complied with the National Planning Policy Framework and had just permitted a sustainable urban extension for 4,250 homes. "We were doing a range of things that you would expect a good planning authority to be doing. We just weren’t focusing on a 13-week target for major applications," explains group manager for planning, economic development and housing strategy Rob Back.

Latest DCLG data show that in the 24 months to June 2014, the council processed 61.8 per cent of major applications within the statutory timeframe, allowing the special measures designation to be lifted. The turnaround has been the result of a comprehensive improvement plan, backed by £150,000 of extra resources which covered additional staff and consultancy input.

The improvement plan included steps to remove unnecessary procedures and to increase existing capacity. Among the results was a cut in the number of stages in the council’s decision-making process, from 279 to just 19.

Back says the improvement plan was underpinned by "systems thinking" principles, based on the philosophy that everything should be designed from the customer’s perspective. "Once you have worked out what the important steps are for customers, you take out everything else that you can unless the law says you have to do it," he says.

Development management team leader Kristy Ingles says the special measures designation "helped focus everybody on the importance of the planning function and getting things right for the customer". She says the designation never affected morale. "Now that we have reorganised how we work, staff have more involvement with the entire application process and everyone communicates much better with each other," she finds.

Earlier this year, Gladman Homes became the first developer to submit an application directly to PINS. But its outline plans for up to 220 homes and a school drop-off zone on a 17.4-hectare site were refused in July. According to the council, Gladman was the only developer among around 50 major applications under consideration in the special measures period to go straight to PINS.

Development services manager James Carpenter would like to think that more applicants did not follow this course because the development industry values the service provided by officers at the council. "We are not trying to take an adversarial approach with applicants and developers. We are trying to proactively encourage growth and economic development in this district," he says.

Back says the council is only half way through implementing its improvements. He points to ongoing training with members and changes to section 106 agreement processes. "We’ve made some of the fundamental changes, but systems thinking as a way of working takes time to bed in," he says.

The DCLG’s latest planning performance statistics show four more authorities at risk of the special measures designation. Carpenter advises that if sanctions are enforced, these authorities will need to be honest about why they have been designated and "positive and proactive" about finding solutions that will enable them to "come out the other side firing on all cylinders".

Carpenter adds that a key lesson from Blaby’s experience is that when faced with special measures designation, you cannot "just tinker with things". He adds: "Unless you tackle the overarching management thinking that has informeddecision-taking, and look at how the team has responded to and dealt with applications, you are going to struggle to make inroads."

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