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Joining forces
Planning – 6 August 2010

Sharing planning services between districts is starting to catch on as a way local authorities can meet tight budgetary targets by making the most efficient use of managers and service teams, Mark Smulian discovers It saves money, cuts jobs and may well be heading for a planning department near you. The concept of sharing services has already cut a swathe through local government support operations.

It is now quite normal for human resources, information technology, payroll and benefits services to be provided by two or more councils collectively. There are a few examples, mainly in legal teams, of professional services being shared. Lincolnshire County Council, for example, runs a joint legal service with its districts. So far, planning has largely escaped such reorganisations.

But this is likely to change as councils come under the financial cosh. When council leaders and finance directors have to seek spending cuts of the order of 25 per cent, savings that could arise from sharing a planning service may be high enough to matter.

It's easy to see the attraction of shared services for hard-pressed councils. It allows them to exploit economies of scale. Two councils working together will not normally need as many officers, use as many buildings or pay as much in support costs as when they work separately.

There could be some gains for planners. Two councils might be able to jointly employ someone with specialist skills where this would be uneconomic for each acting alone.

In career path terms, however, shared services are a mixed blessing. Working in larger departments across different councils should give planners a wider range of skills and opportunities to advance without moving on. On the other hand, if shared services take off, the number of top posts will more or less halve as directors are shared.

Planning has largely escaped service sharing because it is easier and quicker to save money by reorganising administrative services. Moreover, council members are naturally wary of changing a service from which political fallout can easily and publicly spring if anything goes wrong.

Where planning services are run jointly, it has so far mainly been at senior level in authorities that share their wider managements.

The process has gone furthest at West Sussex neighbours Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council. Both are small, largely urban Conservative-controlled coastal authorities. An outright merger would have been a legal minefield.

Instead, the pair have merged what they can while remaining separate legal entities. They share a chief executive, senior management and most service teams.

Merger focuses on common strategies

As well as meshing together their core strategies as far as possible, Adur and Worthing have carried out joint flood risk and housing market assessments. Only the political leaderships remain separate. The councils will continue to have their own planning committees. The main impact on jobs has been at the top, where the two heads of planning left when the councils merged all senior posts.

"We've joined up our planning policy teams but are still working on two core strategies that are at different stages," explains James Appleton, executive head of planning, regeneration and well-being for the two councils. "We have just submitted the one for Worthing and expect to consult on Adur's later in the year. We will also join up development control later in the year."

Appleton says: "We are an area with 160,000 people in all. Although we still have two planning committees, there are councils smaller than us that have more than one committee. Having separate committees might mean that people initially keep working on their patch, but as staff change there will be less of that. We are looking at the best way to organise geographically to cover the whole area."

Development control faces a recruitment freeze and has lost some agency and temporary jobs, but Appleton hopes that the workload will be sufficient to maintain staffing numbers. "The big savings have come from senior jobs across both councils. They have gone down from 23 to 12 senior managers and there have been large savings on accommodation and supplier costs," he explains.

Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Councils share a chief executive and senior management team. Joint head of planning and regeneration Ruth Bamford is responsible for planning policy, development control, land charges, emergency planning, building control and economic development.

"So far it is just my post that is shared. I still have separate teams of managers and officers. The way we will go is to share services where it is appropriate but retain two services where we need that," she explains.

"The biggest driver was the search for efficiency savings," says Bamford. She has not yet looked at the scope for bringing in expertise that neither council could afford alone. "But I can see that a section 106 or urban design officer could be shared across both," she adds.

As for the process, Bamford says: "Managing two teams is less difficult than I thought it would be because I have found more similarities between the two councils than differences. I like to think that both sets of members feel their needs are met. There have not yet been any tensions over allocation of resources between the two."

It is early days for shared planning services, but experts expect it to spread. Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy associate Paul Jackson says: "With budget cuts of 20 to 25 per cent coming, I would have thought every council would look at this to reduce costs but retain a service."

But he warns that sharing can get out of hand. If too many councils are included, management resources eat into savings and "economies of scale turn into diseconomies".

Specialist opportunities boost job options

A positive aspect for planners would be the critical mass point about additional skills. "If you have two or three councils sharing a service you can employ people with specialist skills that it might not be viable for individual council to employ," Jackson says.

"You have a wider pool of knowledge to draw on and more interesting opportunities in the career structure for planners."

PricewaterhouseCoopers partner in charge of local government Andy Ford adds: "There is a good reason why councils will keep pursuing shared services, and that is the financial challenges they face. But no-one will be able to rely on shared services alone to bridge their budget gaps."

He reports that districts have usually implemented service sharing by a trickle-down process, starting with a single chief executive before sharing managers and then moving down to joint teams at service level.

Ford acknowledges that councils wanting to share planning services will have to put considerable effort into convincing their staff of the merits. "A factor that frustrates shared planning services is that councillors want 'their' officers working for them in such a public area. If anything goes wrong, people see it immediately and are onto them," he points out.

"There is also a problem among managements of turkeys not being prepared to vote for Christmas. Managers may work to resist shared services where they can or where a business case is rather marginal. Another issue is career opportunities. If everyone shared, there would inevitably only be half as many top job opportunities and people may resent that."

Transcending Politics

Service sharing at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils faces the added complication of differing political control, being Conservative and Liberal Democrat respectively. The two authorities share a chief executive and service heads.

Planning service head Adrian Duffield's remit covers planning policy, conservation and landscape. "Shared development control could also happen," he says. "I hope we will move towards having either a joint local plan or a single team working on two local plans. Then development control can fit into that."

Duffield was previously head of planning policy at South Oxfordshire and moved to the joint post when his opposite number at Vale of White Horse took early retirement. "It has been a smooth process," he says. "Our customer satisfaction surveys show no deterioration. We take the best of both councils."

In most cases staff time is shared equally, although urban design staff spend 70 per cent of their time working on projects in South Oxfordshire. Differing political control has minimal effect. "The main difference is in corporate policies. Vale of White Horse gives a higher priority to climate change, so we work around that," says Duffield.

When joint working came in most posts lost were through natural wastage, with only one redundancy. Once the process is complete, the overall planning team is expected to be down by three or four jobs overall. "This is all about looking at things differently and thinking differently about the way we work. You have to be selling the idea to staff all the time and keep them informed," says Duffield.