16 February 2006 | Rebecca Ellinor
Local authorities should consider outsourcing planning services to cope with increasing workloads.
That is one of the recommendations from an Audit Commission report issued last week. It found planning departments are struggling to deal with a shortage of experienced planners and the emphasis on speed is affecting the quality of some services. The planning system - matching expectations and capacity
found that while sharing resources with other councils can help, to make a significant contribution to capacity, use of the private sector should
The commission highlighted authorities that have employed external planning firms or consultants. It suggests they could be used to process appeals and applications, ensuring, for example, all the necessary information had been supplied for everything from private applications for extensions to those from companies wanting to build houses or supermarkets. Decisions over whether applications would be granted would remain with the authorities.
"The commission is not advocating that all councils should seek the comprehensive involvement of the private sector in providing planning services. However, we have found clear evidence private consultancies can make an important contribution to improving performance," it said.
David Pointon, chairman of the Society of Procurement Officers in Local Government, told SM: "If you compare a local authority providing a service at the optimum efficiency to a similar job being done by consultants, in my experience, the local authority can do it much more cheaply."
He said councils with a huge backlog would need to decide if using consultants was sustainable in the long-term and may want to consider making a long-term investment in staff.
Consultants could be used to control the situation in the short-term, he added, but authorities might want to outsource work if they lacked specialist skills and could add value by using external providers.
Local authorities in England deal with 700,000 applications a year and planner posts are second only to social workers as the most difficult to fill.