Would privatisation of planning services risk loss of ‘geeky expertise’?

Outsourcing was in the news last weekend, with reports that two police forces are considering a radical privatisation plan. The Guardian reported on Saturday that police forces in Surrey and the West Midlands are offering a £1.5 billion contract under which private firms may investigate crimes and detain suspects.

While the wholesale outsourcing of some public services has become fairly commonplace – for example, in areas such as road maintenance and refuse collection – it has yet to really take off in the planning sector. There remains just a handful of examples of local authorities – Salford City Council, Breckland District Council and North East Lincolnshire Council – that are currently using private firms to deliver all or the majority of their planning services through outsourcing deals. There are also some examples of development control functions being outsourced, such as in Hillingdon, west London, where Terra Quest won a contract last year to provide validation and determination services on minor applications. But such arrangements are the exception rather than the rule.

Could this be about to change? The government is certainly interested in the idea of outsourcing local planning services. Last summer’s Open Public Services white paper, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron, said that the government would consult with local authorities and the wider public sector about how to go further in opening up “locally commissioned” services in planning. But the exact details of what these services include are unclear from the document and it emerged at the end of last year that the publication of the consultation has been delayed.

Another driver might be potential cost savings for cash-strapped councils. “Local government is basically bust,” Nick Cuff, chair of the planning applications committee at the London Borough of Wandsworth, told a seminar organised by Planning in London magazine last week.

Cuff told the seminar that elected members at Wandsworth Council had informally discussed the idea of outsourcing its planning services, but had ruled it out. He says that the council has not officially considered the option and has not been approached by a private sector provider. Cuff told the seminar that he had a number of concerns about outsourcing arrangements, including the potential loss of “geeky expertise”. “There is no one else in the country who knows the streets in Wandsworth like the back of their hand like some of the officers in my planning department do,” he said. “I couldn’t expect an outsourced individual in a private sector organisation to understand that in the same level of depth.”

Cuff also questioned whether the outsourcing of planning services could compromise the balance in the planning system, which he said ensures that “applicants receive a good level of service, but that the planning department isn’t dancing to the tune of applicants”. He warned: “My concern sometimes when I look at outsourcing proposition is that this process might be sullied.”

Other speakers are the seminar had fewer reservations about outsourcing planning arrangements. Brian Waters, chair of the National Planning and Development Forum, suggested (speaking in a personal capacity) that applicants could be given a choice of provider for the processing of their applications, “just like building control, but with the important difference that the provider reports … to the chief planning officer, possibly with recommendations”. He said that this arrangement would see the elected authority remain responsible for making the decision and could be offered by local planning authorities, who “might like the change to balance or boost their workloads to support more specialists”. “I might like to have the opportunity to take my Lambeth planning applications to Wandsworth for processing,” he said. “I might even establish an ongoing service relationship with Wandsworth’s department, the way I can with building control. They might handle all my clients’ cases around the country.”

Another outsourcing option set out by Waters would involve taking the bulk of “pretty straightforward” applications “right out of the system”. “This could be done by extending the self-certification role of architects and other agents, who already advise clients on permitted development rights and compliant designs,” he said. Waters said that those thinking this idea sounds “a bit off the wall” should be reminded that last November, in its plan for implementing the Penfold Review of non-planning consents, the government announced it would consult on “options for allowing certification of applications for Listed Building Consent by accredited independent agents”. “In an area that you’d think would be more tricky, the government is thinking about it,” Waters told the seminar. He said that this system could improve the quality of applications. “Outside of London, the quality of what is delivered to planning departments is a disgrace,” Waters said.

So there may be policy and financial drivers for more outsourcing in planning – and ideas for making this happen. But will it? Christopher Tunnell, global leader of planning, policy and economics at consultancy Arup, was sceptical. “When we’ve really broken it down, we’ve often doubted that anyone can do it for less,” he told the seminar. “If we go down that route, a lot of planning departments would win their own services back. I don’t think there’s a raft of private sector providers out there who are geared up to do it.”

jamie.carpenter@haymarket.com

  • Rubble

    Self-certification. Good grief, that will go down well with the public. ‘it’s acceptable because I say it is. I’m not biased just because it’s my application’.

    The time I’ve hear agents say ‘I know it’s crap but I’ve got to represent my client’s interests/I need to get paid’.

    On the other hand, maybe we could actually get paid properly if we went private and start ripping off the government like every other private company that’s supposed to be saving us money.