Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Contacting local authorities

There is a worrying trend I have noticed among local authorities of failing to reveal the identities and contact details of senior officers on their websites. Some local authorities do not even name their Chief Executive on their website.

Whilst they would no doubt wish to channel initial contacts with the Council through some kind of sorting system (much as one would process incoming mail through a post room), so as to ensure that emails are forwarded to the right person in the organisation, it effectively prevents legitimate contact with a particular officer when this is reasonably required.

The same problem arises nowadays in contacting individual officers by telephone. They rarely answer their direct dial lines, but have them permanently diverted to their voicemail. But more often than not, you won’t even get that far, but will get some infuriating push-button answering system, until you finally get through to yet another answering machine.

Admittedly it is rather a long time since I worked in local government, but we would certainly not have been allowed to avoid the public in this way. It was drummed into us that we were there to provide a public service, and that included being available on the telephone and taking calls when they were put through.

I have been dealing with one local planning authority recently which has taken non-communication to such extraordinary lengths that, despite repeated emails and telephone calls, I was unable to ascertain whether or not an application I had lodged with them on behalf of a client had been registered. I eventually learnt that it had been when I got a letter from a local builder offering his services to do the building work! After a bit of ferreting about, I was able to extract the bare details from a far from user-friendly website. To this day, I have had no direct communication from the authority, and would be slightly surprised if they meet their target date for determining the application.

And planners wonder why they get criticised by the government and by developers and business organisations!



  1. I would love to join you and blame the planners for all my woes but the fact is that LPAs are running on empty because of the challenge of making the LA square peg budget fit the round hole that is public services.

    Of late the number of planners has halved in some LPAs and asyou point out the service has become a bit of shambles in some parts of the UK, I just wonder what happens if we ever see more development should the finance be forthcoming?

    Mind you, I can remember the 70s when I was an architectural technician, we were working flat out on all sorts of projects and there were fewer LPA planners who were amenable and of course much more flexible policies. It seems all public services have gone down the route of cutting out the contact with the public, a bit daft when it is a 'public service'.

  2. I am sure Evan is right about the root cause of the current communications problem. Planning departments seem to have suffered disproportionate cuts in budgets and staffing, and ministers have been made aware of this. However, by one means or another, it is an issue which has to be addressed. A change of attitude and approach on the part of planning officers might help here. As Evan has noted, planning officers were far more ‘user-friendly’ 20 or 30 years ago, and were far less likely to say ‘No’ than they are now. Much shorter committee reports and delegated reports would also save officer time; take a look in the council archives if records from, say 20+ years ago have been preserved, and see how brief and to-the-point reports were in those days. The challenge for management is to get through the planning workload with significantly reduced resources, but still provide the service the public expects, and is paying for. Then maybe planning officers will have time to answer their phones.

  3. Some 80% of our workload is split fairly equally between two LA's. One would best be described as dysfunctional, they will not return phone calls, emails or letters, and generally miss target dates by a significant margin.
    The other LA have recently brought in new management and instilled what can best be described as a "client facing" attitude. They are told that dealing with an issue immediately will actually save time in the long run. And better still they pre-empt issues and contact us! They are polite friendly and an absolute delight to work with.
    Interestingly they seem to have far fewer sick days than the first LA (where it seems to be a significant problem) presumably because they staff actually find their job rewarding.