Monday, 23 November 2015

Cost-cutting proves costly

My travels took me to Tunbridge Wells last week, where I learnt that the Borough Council is being forced to spend “hundreds of thousands of pounds” (I think the figure is actually £150,000) to extricate themselves from a partnership they had entered into in 2014 with two neighbouring authorities to set up a joint planning service. The new service has been described as “a fiasco”. It was intended to save money, but had cost Tunbridge Wells £70,000 more in its first year of operation than it would have cost them to run their own planning department independently, and these extra costs were set to rise further. The plug was finally pulled on the doomed scheme on 5 November.

Not only did costs rise as a result of merging the planning services of the three authorities, but overall performance also suffered. In 2012-13 TWBC was managing to validate 87% of planning applications within 5 working days. After the merger, it went down to 34%. (The new service had been heralded as “a high performing planning support service that delivers high quality, accurate and timely support to customers”!) One of the fears that may have led to Tunbridge Wells’ decision to break way from the joint arrangement was the possibility that the decline in performance could have led to the council being placed in ‘special measures’ by the government.

As one local councillor pointed out, this serves as a warning to any other local planning authorities thinking of entering into a joint arrangement with their neighbours for the provision of services that have previously been dealt with in-house. Not only have there been all the on-costs of setting up the new service, but in order to bring planning back in-house TWBC will now have to budget for redundancies, extra computer and software costs and legal expenses, as well as compensation to their neighbours Maidstone and Swale for breaking up the joint arrangements.

The decision to pull the plug on the joint service was no sudden whim on the part of TWBC; the writing had been on the wall for some time. The three councils had brought in Mid Kent Audit last summer when rising costs and deteriorating performance were becoming a cause for increasing concern. The auditors’ report identified major failings in the project, one of which was that the new service had been put under a manager with no previous knowledge or experience of planning. A lack of resources being allocated to the project was another factor that had undermined the effectiveness of the service and had led to a spiral of delays, inefficiency and rising costs. Needless to say, staff morale went through the floor.

This debacle is all the more embarrassing for Tunbridge Wells and its MP, as the council was conscientiously attempting to set an example to other authorities in doing exactly what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been urging local authorities to do, by merging services with neighbouring authorities. And who is the MP for Tunbridge Wells? It is Greg Clark who is, erm, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

No doubt the good citizens of Tunbridge Wells would be justified in describing themselves as “Disgusted”.



  1. It's got a few glitches (D&A/CIL requirement errors), but on balance, the government's Planning Portal works really well. What I don't get is why the whole process isn't simply managed from the portal - instead of each LPA having their own distinct (and very slightly different) online planning pages.

    We have ludicrous situations where LPAs print out PDF copies of drawings, letters, emails, etc. and then scan them in again; we buy site plans which the LPAs then discard preferring to use their own digital data.

    It just seems like there's still so much waste in this system.

    Ah, coffee's arrived. Rant over.

  2. That sounds like Management and Councillor Supervision cockups from end to end.

    Probably not .. er .. Planned properly.

  3. Move all planning functions to Brandon Lewis's office and see how bad it could get. I like passerby's comment, cheered me up no end on yet another bleak Snowdonia morning.

  4. martin,

    Thanks to you and your colleagues for an interesting and enjoyable morning - good pastries too. I was too shy in the end to ask any questions prompted by the presentations, but one or two of them were asked by others anyway.

    Thanks again.

  5. Hi Martin,

    I am the manager of the Mid Kent Planning Support Service and you may wish to know that previously I was planning support manager from 2008-2011.

    I would also like to place on record that Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells operate many successful shared services – audit, environmental health, ICT, legal and revenues and benefits – bringing resilience and service quality improvements as well savings to both councils.

    We do not have a joint planning service. Tunbridge Wells is withdrawing from the planning part of a support service between Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells. We will continue to operate a joint Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells land charges service.
    The shared support service went live in June 2014 and all elements of the service, not just validation, were performing to target 16 months later in October 2015. Most academics recognise that getting a shared service running at ‘business as usual’ can take up to two years.

    In October 2015 we validated 88.3% of Tunbridge Wells’ major, minor and other applications in time and 94.6% of all other application types (including time bound applications such as prior notifications) in time.

    We have been on target for validation for Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells since August 2015.

    We are also on target for issuing decision notices, logging enforcement cases, processing appeals and carrying out customer history requests.

    Land Charges for Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells is on target against an improved target of 5 working days (historically 10 working days).

    I’m interested in the feedback to this blog piece – particularly that relating to the printing of documents submitted electronically. We have a connector to the planning portal that imports electronic documents into our system automatically (occasional compatibility issues with some of the documents submitted aside). We then relabel and publish this information on our website. However, we do have to print copies of electronically submitted applications to support the request of our client planning teams for hardcopies, and to supply to parishes.

    We will continue to improve the planning support service and will be working closely with Maidstone and Swale to move towards a more efficient e-working model. Customer feedback is always welcome on these matters.

    Kind Regards



  6. I have only just discovered Ryan O’Connell’s comment of 4 December 2012 in the “Spam” bin. I have absolutely no idea why the system classified it as Spam. Had I seen it at the time it would have been published immediately.