Project: Camden development management service
Organisations involved: London Borough of Camden
Cuts to central government funding made since 2010 mean that, like other local authorities, Camden has had to explore new ways of delivering services. Development management is no exception.
It is about maintaining the same level of service with fewer resources. A collaborative approach helps secure revisions to schemes that result in approval rather than applications being resubmitted. This, alongside a reduction in the number of appeals, reduces the work required of officers. Alex Bushell, a manager in the service, says: "The driver was the financial situation but also providing a good service."
Since 2013, the council has been rolling out changes to the way its officers deal with planning applications. Cases are no longer doled out by managers but picked up by officers whenever they have spare capacity, a system known as "self-allocation". John Diver, a senior planner at the authority, says: "It means you don’t get stuck in a situation where you have a huge backlog of cases." Officers now take ownership of cases throughout the application process, from validation to a decision.
Self-allocation helps staff manage their workloads but also provides flexibility and creates the conditions necessary for career progression, according to Bushell. "There is an opportunity for a planning officer to challenge themselves and pick up something a little harder," he says.
Validation – checking that an application is complete – used to be handled by a separate validations team of planning technicians, which no longer exists. Now, officers validate their own cases, while a reduced number of planning technicians handle minor applications as well as administrative tasks. This change means officers tend to pick up on any issues that need to be raised with the applicant at an earlier stage than they would have under the old system, says Diver. "It means you don’t have two pairs of eyes looking through the plans before an assessment of policy compliance is made," he adds.
"As an officer, when I take a case and start the validation assessment, at the same time I’m now looking at the merits of the application." In the old days, no feedback would have been given on the merits of the proposal until after validation, he says. Under the new approach, he adds, initial feedback can be provided the first time the applicant is contacted, which is when they are notified whether their application has been validated.
This sets the tone for an ongoing relationship between officers and applicants, who are now referred to as "customers" by Camden’s officers. The officers are given more autonomy to negotiate revisions to schemes than previously and are encouraged to foster close working relationships with applicants. Diver says: "It avoids last-minute refusal for matters that can be addressed via revisions."
Regular communication and a single point of contact helps provide applicants with confidence in the planning process, says Diver. This can pay dividends when differences of opinion arise, he adds. "You build up a genuine relationship with the customers and their consultants. When you’re negotiating, you have more of a reasonable conversation than you have if the applicant deals with a series of different officers."
Working together to iron out any potential problems leads to fewer refusals, because negotiations help applicants to revise their schemes to make them acceptable to all parties, says Diver. "At other authorities at which I have worked, applications would be refused for matters that could actually have been designed out or addressed via revisions, but there simply wasn’t the time or capacity," he notes.
In cases where applications require significant revisions, applicants are pointed towards Camden’s paid pre-application service, helping the applicant produce an acceptable application while raising much-needed revenue for the authority. "We might pick up a case that requires a lot of work, but we know we can get there," says Bushell. "We’d rechannel it, say ‘go through the pre-app process, pay a fee and we’ll provide a service that way’. The same officer who worked on the initial application would continue to work on it if it is redirected."
It took time for staff to adapt to such a different way of working. Administering the validation process yourself "takes a bit of getting used to", says Diver. "But once you’ve been trained I’ve found it saves a lot of issues further down the line." As well as the validation training, officers received support through a mentoring scheme. Managers now have more time to spend discussing cases and sharing knowledge, says Bushell. "We have a weekly case conference where we all sit together as a team," he adds.
The council says these changes have meant resources previously dedicated to administration are now being used to process simple planning applications – and there are reasons to believe the new approach has fostered a less combative relationship between applicants and the authority. In 2013/14, the financial year in which the new system was rolled out, 150 of the authority’s decisions were challenged at appeal. The average number in the years since has dropped below 100, says the council.