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”.
© MARTIN H GOODALL