Council service customer focus cuts application decision time and waste

A review of development control processes prompted one south Wales authority to swap a target-driven approach for a more efficient approvals system and motivated staff, Geoff White and Nicola Pearce explain.

Let's impose a condition, because we don't have all the details. Shall we suggest that the application be withdrawn to allow more time to get the scheme right? Sound familiar? These practices are driven by the eight-week target. Are they what the applicant really wants? Doubtful. Is this a good use of resources? Most definitely not.

By asking such questions, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council's development control service has been transformed in the past 12 months. Our starting point was not a failing service but a wish to improve. We were already turning applications around efficiently - or so we thought.

We carried out a systems thinking review. This approach differs from the command and control rules that operate in most organisations. It required a fundamental analysis of the way that we operate, starting with our customers and defining the real purpose of development control from their perspective - to approve quality development quickly.

We mapped out our system from applicants' initial approach to putting a spade in the ground. We looked at all forms of communication we use - post, telephone, email and face to face - and asked applicants, agents, objectors and consultees what matters to them.

What we found was surprising. Our systems were fragmented and repetitious, with unintended consequences. The 115 steps on the simplest application meant that there was no ownership, which led to wasteful mistakes. It also meant that we were looking for amendments after registration, having already written to neighbours. This triggered further letters and caused confusion, resulting in phone calls and yet more wasted time.

So we set about redesigning our systems. Our focus was on our purpose, with the aim of eliminating waste and delivering a service that meets customers' needs rather than targets. Our front-line staff are doing the work.

We are now organised into three teams, each dealing with all applications, appeals and enforcement matters in their particular area. Each team meets daily, with highway officers also attending, to consider new applications, complaints and pre-application enquiries. The team examines each application in detail for validity and any shortcomings in the design or submitted details.

A case officer is then appointed and arrangements made to meet the applicant on-site, when issues such as missing signatures or edge red boundaries are sorted out. The aim is a clean application of satisfactory design and providing all the information to allow a decision without pre-commencement conditions.

Only then is it registered - always using the correct valid date - and consultations sent, eliminating repeat letters to neighbours and consultees. Having elements such as screen fencing annotated on drawings, which might otherwise be dealt with by condition, can prevent neighbours' concerns.

Pre-application enquiries are dealt with in the same way. By giving good advice early we are more likely to get a clean application when it is submitted. In overall terms, this is more efficient and reduces waste.

The outcomes are that our staff are now better motivated and have full ownership of the process. Daily team meetings are a powerful learning environment. Everyone is involved in all applications, which is particularly good in developing the less experienced staff.

Meanwhile, customers appreciate the consistent advice and face-to-face contact with case officers. We are chasing them rather than the other way around. As a result, pre-commencement conditions have dropped from 17 per cent to less than one per cent across all full and reserved matters applications.

Improved efficiency has allowed us to reduce staff numbers by 15 per cent through natural wastage while enhancing our service. With our focus now on the system we are able to identify variations in our performance and make further improvements. The average end-to-end time in dealing with applications has been reduced from 86 to 52 days. And for those who still look at targets, our date from valid submission to decision time now averages 38 days.

Geoff White is head of planning and Nicola Pearce is development control manager at Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council.

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