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Merging support functions for planning and building control
Unsurprisingly resource savings are often the driver for authorities to look at new ways of working. With application numbers having dropped over the last three years and finances now tightening across the public sector, local authority planning service are looking at new ways of delivering both front and back office processes. As part of the challenge to continue to deliver quality services with reduced resources, some authorities have reorganised administrative support teams to work across both planning and building control. We spoke to Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Bolton Council, Gloucester City Council, South Gloucestershire Council and Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council about why and how they went to this approach.
For these councils merging these support functions has not only saved money, but created a closer working relationship between the services, improved customer service for applicants, and improved team working.
- Top tips
- Creating the new service
- Standardising IT and other changes
- Further information
Proper staff involvement
“Speak to your staff about the changes in roles and service provision – working with them to design the service – they have come up with good ideas which have been implemented” Valerie Walsh, Principle Development Technician, Bolton
Location, Location Location
“Get everyone to be sitting together” Penny McGinty, Head of Development and Implementation, Wigan
Clear objectives and good communication
“Making sure everyone is focused on outcomes required” Paul Clifford – Improvement Manager Barnsley
Creating the new service
The authorities that we discussed this with created generic positions in the support teams. Some teams have kept a couple of team leaders or senior staff that specialize in an area but these were being phased out and replaced with generic job descriptions. New posts are advertised as generalist roles.
The specific services that are supported vary across the authorities but include planning applications, building control, enforcement and planning policy. Following the success of the merger in Gloucester, they are now considering expanding their coverage to include other services.
Authorities have looked at different ways of organising the resources available to them. South Gloucestershire have reorganised the team in two areas of work:
- validation and registration
- post registration across development services.
Rebecca Patten Business Support manager South Gloucestershire “The task based structure has given us even more flexibility across the service and has been extremely successful”.
Authorities went through the transition process in different ways. In all instances using the knowledge and experience from within the team was key. It was also important to designate experienced individuals to advise staff on areas of work that were new to them and arrange opportunities for staff to shadow and support each other.
Gloucester reviewed all their processes as part of this merger and produced detailed process flow charts for each area of work to support the teams working in new areas. The review managed to highlighted improvements in processes that were embedded in the service.
Standardising IT and other changes
A lot of the authorities are now using the same IT system across building control and planning. This has helped the new teams work on different services. It’s also improved the service for customers using both building control and planning.
Gloucester moved to generic IT processes that use the same software across building control and planning with linked information. As Caroline Troughton, the Development Services Administration Manager, noted: “All applications are now electronic and both services are giving real time information for the applicants on decision online. The electronic handling process compared to the old paper copy process has reduced the authority’s resource requirements by about half and the customer is getting a better service.”
Many authorities have also embedded other changes whilst merging the support teams. Bolton moved all initial enquiries to the council’s customer contact centre when they reorganised. Working with the contact centre made it necessary to produce support materials for each service. They produced A to Z guides for each of the service areas. These were also useful when training staff in new areas of work.
“The whole process has been about using our well informed support staff to the best of their abilities - freeing them up from general enquiries which are now delivered by the contact centre” Valerie Walsh, Bolton
Unsurprisingly locating the team in one area was often highlighted as essential to helping the new team form. Co-location allows the team to work together, supporting each other and sharing knowledge and experience.
In South Gloucestershire, Rebecca Patten Business Support Manager noted it was quite a challenging process for them to merge the teams, “The teams were located on different sites but it was always known that we would be moving to one site eventually and this happened in April 2010 and this has made it a lot easier.”
If you are able to house the support team together and the service officers as well it was advantageous but it can also lead to more flexible ways of working across the service, with flexible hours and home working arrangements.
For many authorities the changes were undertaken as part of a wider review to deliver improved customer service. There was a need to be able to more flexibly support peaks in demand for their service as well as improve the links between planning permissions and the building control services available following the process.
As Rebecca Patten, the Business Support Manager from South Gloucestershire explained “Better use of resources was one of the driving forces behind the merger but not the only one - an improved customer focus was a major factor as well. There was also the economic argument of making the authority’s building control service more attractive to applicants following on from the planning application process, actively approaching potential clients following planning applications to use our building control service”.
The new team approach has allowed a greater flexibility to support times of increased activity in a particular service area and also in working arrangements for the team; such as flexible working days and hours. In South Gloucestershire Rebecca Patten noted that the merged team has been able to be more responsive to the challenges that subsequent budget reductions have brought: “these have been easier to adapt to with the merged team as the staff have been more flexible to new arrangements and also to new opportunities.”
Learning from each other
The merged team has also brought about a better service for customers with shared information about applicants moving between planning and building control services and staff working to consistent processes and formats.
For example in Gloucester, merging the support teams helped to get the building control service to provide a more electronic service that the planning service had already been using.
“Building control was behind planning in their use of processes and procedures when the support functions were merged – they are now both using the same process around electronic formatting. This has delivered resource savings and improved access to information for the customer.” Caroline Troughton, Development Services Administration Manager, Gloucester.
In South Gloucestershire the services are also learning from each other. Rebecca Patten the Business Support Manager noted “I think that we have always had a very progressive building control service, which is very customer focused and the merging of support teams has helped improved the planning service. Customer satisfaction has increased for planning from our own customer surveys since the merger, and I am sure this is down, in some part, to the new way of working”.
In all the teams the office was felt to be working closer together, with suggested improvements coming from the team members with their combined service knowledge. As Penny McGinty, Head of Development and Implementation, from Wigan said “someone might see something working in the planning processes and suggest “why don’t we try that in building control” and Rebecca Patten in South Gloucestershire also noted “it was a big advantage to be able to share experience and learning across the services”.
There are other opportunities for the planning service and building control service to learn from each other. With the possibility that planning services may be able to set their own fees in the future there is an opportunity to learn from the experience of building control services in setting fees for cost recovery of providing a service.
Planning and building control officers are also working closer together. In Wigan the building control officers are following up on planning conditions when they are doing their site visits. This is made easier by the shared support team making information more accessible between service areas. This type of approach is very much part of the development management approach to planning, with councils delivering a true end-to-end service.
Across the group of authorities, merged support services have recorded 25% to 30% staffing reductions in the new team. Some managed to do it through natural wastage and others did this through redundancies.
The move to a merged team has been subject to the same challenges that face any significant change or reorganisation. In some authorities staff were finding it difficult to move away from specialist areas of expertise. Services also wanted to maintain their own support functions, with some building control and planning officers saying it will never work having generalist support.
Engagement and communication
How you go about it and engage with both the support team and the affected services is key. Making sure that there is a clear plan for the process is essential and that the reason for the proposed new of working are clearly explained, giving the team an opportunity to shape what happens as much as possible. Getting staff buy-in is essential and as they know the work well, they often have the best ideas for how things can be made better.
In Wigan it was noted that everyone bought into the process and worked well together to make it a success, as Penny McGinty, Head of Development and Implementation, noted “We managed to create a supportive environment to capture the suggestions of change from the team and make sure that they could see their suggestions being followed through.”
Caroline Troughton of Gloucester City Council advised “Don’t be scared to try new things - Keep an open mind and try it!”
Some of the authorities are looking to go further with Wigan reviewing their process again for further improvements and Gloucester looking at further service areas to include in the teams remit and also noted that there is potential to deliver this support across multiple authorities.
Improving the connection - on The National Planning Forum website
The National Planning Forum produced an interesting discussion paper in September 2010 looking at the relationship between planning and building control. It looked at how planning and building could improve higher environmental and sustainable outcomes and improve efficiency between the service areas. It sets out the aims and challenges for the services to integrate and support each other in the future.
Super planning authorities – on the PAS team blog