A perfect storm is upon us, says Stephen Ottewell, Director of Planning at Capita, and becoming resilient by managing demand and supply is the best way to weather it.
In recent years, councils have had to make budget cuts while facing increasing pressure on minimum standards, particularly in areas like planning, which is often cited as a barrier to growth. More recently, they’ve had to deal with the challenges thrown up by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past year, I’ve been struck by the resilience of my fellow planning professionals and the speed at which they’ve adapted their core working practices in response to Covid-19. There has been fundamental change across my local government partnerships, in common with all local planning authorities, including virtual committees and delegated powers being implemented in new ways.
But is personal resilience enough to make sure that councils get through the pandemic intact, delivering essential services to citizens when they need them most? In my opinion, organisational resilience is vital, too, and having enough money is a big part of that for councils.
So, despite a 20% increase in planning fees in January 2018, the Royal Town Planning Institute is calling for the Government to put £500m into a new Planning Delivery Fund and inject it into the English planning system over the next four years. However, the Government’s own figures show an estimated net expenditure in planning and development services of £1.4bn in 2020 / 21, with year-on-year increases.
Consequently, what would have been a low-priority target of resource optimisation in a council department has now developed into something far more complex and significant – which is a threat to achieving basic resilience.
Resilience through demand management
In simple terms, resilience is managing supply and demand for services in a way that matches the two as closely as possible and reduces wastage or exposure to inadequate resourcing.
Looking at demand management, this is always going to be a challenge in development-related areas. You only have to look at recent fluctuations in GDP and the impact of Covid-19 on UK society to know that.
At Capita, we’ve developed a capacity management tool that helps planning departments to achieve the right staffing levels in the coming months based on their expected number of planning applications, current caseloads and the number of cases that officers are predicted to complete each month. We make these assumptions based on information about the actual number of cases cleared over previous months, and against benchmarks provided by an expanding portfolio of local authorities taking up our offer of a free assessment.
A big part of that challenge is managing demand as efficiently as possible. Similarly, our business model places great importance on workplace management, emphasising a philosophy of maximising management time in the places that create value. Striving for close contact with employees, leaders ‘walk the work’ with their teams to see what’s really happening and take action to improve where it’s needed. Activities have included coaching, conducting ‘waste walks’ to identify improvement opportunities, leading or observing team huddles and listening. There’s no reason why such walks can’t happen in a virtual workplace in the same way but, clearly, the concept of staying in close contact with and understanding what’s happening is harder without the ability to see and hear it first-hand.
Resilience through supply management
Following on from this, once councils have the best possible handle on demand, the question becomes how do they get the best fit in terms of supply to ensure that they’re resilient at all times?
Firstly, looking after existing staffing is crucial. Like any business, as you invest in employees’ skills development and as they gain experience in their role and of the local area, you’ll feel the loss more acutely should they decide to leave. Creating a clear career path that allows them the freedom to develop at their own pace but has the flexibility to adapt as they do is critical in achieving resilience.
Doing repetitive work (working in isolation on a very similar caseload) might be the simplest way of managing demand for managers but it can be demoralising for their team members and, ultimately, could lead to a talent drain. So, what about getting those people involved in more group / team tasks (such as an ongoing Local Plan consultation exercise) or more academic-type exercises, or giving them the opportunity to get a greater understanding of your customers, which could ultimately unlock some value and help to ease those demand pressures?
Resilience through innovation
However, you can only gain the agility needed to achieve this type of career development with the requisite resources. This is likely to be more achievable in places that are more cost effective and where it’s easier to recruit. Given that planners are in short supply in many parts of the country, this might not be possible everywhere.
We see this first-hand in our partnerships. In response to the recruitment challenge, we opened an office in Belfast, which supports our national offering in England and has quickly grown to around 20 planners in its first three years. Local authorities could similarly think innovatively about where they locate their employees and which elements of their services can be delivered remotely, potentially in partnership with others.
Alternatively, a mechanism such as a resilience partner, to support you so that you can deal with peaks of demand that your current teams can’t accommodate, is another good way to ensure that your key services are resilient. We’ve seen an increase in demand for such services over the last 12 months, mainly from councils looking to become more strategic in their partnering and sign up to single supplier frameworks for planning services given their greater freedoms (up to spending limits) and time savings.
So, what will the future bring? The storm doesn’t appear to be subsiding, indeed the significant changes to the planning system expected in the Government’s Planning White Paper will add even more complexity. However, the easiest way to create additional bandwith to deal with that transformation is to manage the basic principles of supply and demand to an optimum level across your planning department, achieving peak resillience to allow those precious resources to add the most value possible.