Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Outsourcing Planning - Have they thought it through?

As part of the preparation of the Localism Bill there was a submission to the parliamentary committee on the outsourcing of the planning function in Local Authorities. As well as setting out advice, there was an example of best practice from New Zealand. I have set out below a small excerpt from that best practice guide.

Determine what the council wants to achieve by outsourcing. Before starting, clearly identify:

• Why the council is considering outsourcing?

• What services does the council need to outsource, and to what extent?

Knowing the 'why' and 'what' will provide a clear basis for selecting a contractor. Consider these issues in a strategic assessment:

• Does the council still want to be outsourcing in 12 months time?

• What are the future workload predictions? Consider historic trends, economic outlooks, and projected growth. Is it necessary to outsource the entire consent (planning application) service or would partial outsourcing be sufficient to manage peaks in resource consents? Consent volumes are also related to the plan provisions. Consider whether the plan provisions are likely to change in the near future (through either plan changes or the review process).

• What outsourcing options are there? Will outsourcing to one or more local suppliers create unworkable conflicts of interest, or remove necessary consultant options for the community?

• Does the council need particular technical skills or an increase in general resources? Would it be better to increase in-house resources, rather than outsourcing? Will 'in-house' skills be lost or can 'in-house' skills be enhanced?

• Will the use of an external contractor create tension within the planning department, or with other departments of the council? What type of work does the existing staff want to retain? Staff may wish to retain the more challenging and complex applications to enhance their professional development and maintain job satisfaction.

• What are the views and expectations of the council's managers and politicians?

• Does the council need to consult internally and/or externally? Does the community want the council to retain services in-house?

• What management structure and systems will be implemented to ensure a smooth transition of processing consents between council and contractors?

If we were seeing evidence of a strategic assessment and a carefully considered approach I might feel a little more confident in the process. I haven’t seen any evidence yet but it may be hidden away in those One Barnet Board minutes that we are not allowed to read. If this strategic assessment does exist then the council should be sharing it with the key stakeholder, residents and staff. However, I have a horrible feeling that the outsourcing exercise is purely driven by political dogma and many of these questions simply have not been asked let alone addressed. If that is the case then I for one will not be surprised when it all goes wrong but I will make sure to remind councillors who is to blame - them


  1. For One Barnet to be driven by political dogma would require, at the very least, an understanding of what it is you are trying to achieve and why. But when questioned by the media, Lynne Hillan has repeatedly shown that she simply doesn’t have a clue what this wonderful project is all about. Even the council’s auditors have said that there is no business plan, but still the council persists. You can’t help but draw parallels to the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes.

  2. I remember that the Dear Leader explained to the media last year that Planning could be two-speed - that you could pay more if you wanted a faster service.

    Has that part of the "plan" (plan? Huh!) survived to the present day?

  3. DCMD, sadly you are absolutely right. I have the most terrifying suspicion that they really do not understand what they are trying to achieve. I look around Barnet and I see a fantastic place poorly managed. I have no sense of what their vision is or how One Barnet will help to realise that vision.

  4. Baarnett, There is abolutely no evidence of that earlier explanation. I get the impression they are making it up as they go along.

  5. baarnett

    The problem with a two speed planning department is that it would be unlawful. Given how much the Head of Planning and Borough Solicitor get paid, you would have thought that at least one of them would have pointed this out to the Leader before the council went public with the idea.

  6. I think a lot of councillors are worried about whether their influence would be reduced in planning matters. I suspect there are misgivings about outsourcing this.

  7. Most affected staff also get the impression that everything is being made up as the project advances to fit an ideology and not to achieve what is best for residents or employees.