‘easyCouncil’ – the future of planning?
It may seem innocuous but the Open Public Services White Paper, smuggled out recently by David Cameron in the heat of the News International phone hacking scandal, could have big implications for the planning world.
The White Paper is consulting on how to open up “locally commissioned” planning and other public services to competition, with the prospect of providers from the private and voluntary sectors, as well as community groups. Despite the warm words of the Prime Minister about ‘releasing the grip of state control and putting power in people’s hands’ what he really means is parcelling up public services for outsourcing to private companies.
The timing of the release of the White Paper is surprising as it comes ahead of a Government decision on whether to allow local authorities to set their own planning application fees to fully recover their costs of handling both large and small-scale development proposals. The hope is that with more money local authorities could properly invest in and build up their development management services, which are often badly over-stretched and grossly under-resourced, so that there is no burden on local tax payers. With more investment, local planning services could then be properly equipped with skilled and innovative planners to support their political masters in delivering the localism agenda, taking a lead in the Big Society and of course “going for growth”.
BUCKET SHOP PROVIDER
However, outsourcing of planning services surely risks going the other way, with a ‘bucket shop’ provider concentrating on cost savings rather than delivering a quality, responsive and proactive planning service.
Indeed, it is perhaps telling that some Conservative-led councils, such as the London Borough of Barnet, are exploring what has been dubbed an ‘easyCouncil’, no-frills style approach to council services, where a basic level of service is provided at a low cost, with extras available to those prepared to pay more. Not surprisingly, this has outraged local people.
So is the idea going to fly? Some local authorities, including Salford City Council and Breckland District Council, have already chosen the outsourced route and argue that it has reduced expenditure whilst maintaining a high quality service.
Whilst providers will rub their hands at the prospect of a large planning application fee, they will not be so keen on long periods of negotiation with developers or in engaging and working with local communities unless they can charge for it or slip it in as an optional extra, which it isn’t of course. The possibilities of ‘added extras’ are endless – on-line registration of an application, neighbour consultation, speaking at planning committee meetings – all to boost revenues or merely balance the books. Some will pay and benefit; some will pay and suffer (there may be more money in it for the provider to refuse an application within the 8 or 13 week decision-making period and charge a fat fee for a new submission, with the prospect of all the added extras).
DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY
There is a danger of privatisation of the planning process becoming fixated with costs rather than ensuring that the right development happens in the right place at the right time. There is a massive responsibility on local councils at present to meet the need for new housing, support the economy, create jobs, combat climate change, protect the environment and help tackle the country’s deficit by slashing budgets. Sure, some efficiency improvements might be delivered but these responsibilities are too important to all our lives to compete on price. With localism and community determined futures, planning needs to be subject to democratic accountability and transparency rather than as a contract to be bundled up with call centres and family services and sold off to the lowest bidder. Competition often leads to a race to the bottom, with providers forced to undercut on costs to the detriment of service quality.
But away from the cheap and cheerful planning ‘bucket shops’ and discount operators, where these local and national planning challenges demand experience and specialist skills, there is surely a place for a quality or ‘Club Class’ service that developers pay for. This could be on a major planning application requiring wide consultation, collaboration and a coordinated approach to infrastructure to get the maximum benefit and create a place that will be loved by the local community. In these situations, the Open Public Services’ principles of choice and diversity come to the fore and the service could be provided by an enhanced in-house planning team or private provider that had a proven track-record in major developments, community engagement and delivering special places, with no conflict of interest and high standards of probity.
Maybe the White Paper is a cynical ruse to break-up the country’s public services. But if local authorities do not seize the moment and push ahead with their own, local development agendas, they may miss a golden opportunity to lead from the front rather than have development forced on them from the centre or at appeal. Help is at hand but councils need financial support not the wholesale dismantling of their services. The emphasis must be on quality not cost because the planning of our country deserves better than a no-frills, discount or budget approach if it is to meet expectations and make good places.
My thanks go to Beverley Firth and Caroline Bywater at Mills & Reeve LLP for their invaluable contribution and for acting as a ‘sounding board’ on this Provocation.