Planning and enforcement productivity

The assignment was to review the planning (development management) and enforcement service, advise on best practice, the potential for productivity gains and any other improvements that could be made to realise efficiency gains – in order that these could be embedded within any new managerial approach or operational structure adopted within the service. Advice was also sought over how improvement measures could be embedded within a structural, operational or cultural redesign. This case study forms part of our productivity experts resource.

Efficiency and income generation

Outcomes demonstrated no inherit problems or concerns over the service operation with a series of recommendations being made to working practices in order to deliver efficiency improvements. The review also contributed to greater confidence both within the service and wider council over the role of the service going forward, with restructure and alignment to meet the challenge and ambition of a wider growth agenda.

The challenge

The project sought external advice over how best to improve the productivity of the planning (development management) and enforcement service and embed such improvements within a concurrent service review in order to realise efficiency gains and strategic outcome improvements. The project was in part instigated as a result of Councillors seeking assurance over the effectiveness of the operation of the service and also through a recognised need to improve both the actual and perceived productivity of these services.

The instigation of the project also sought to build upon a review of the performance of the service at a strategic and tactical level by the chief executive and head of service. The review concentrated upon strategic approach with this project being considered complementary in scope by seeking to consider matters of both operational functionality and structural revision. Outcomes from both reviews were expected to inform the restructuring of the service.

At time of entering into the project, the service was not seen as failing – objective performance was considered satisfactory or better in the majority of areas. However at the outset of the project there was a strong desire to improve the productivity of the service to deliver the efficiency gains that would allow the effective reallocation of staff and financial resource to focus on major (and complex) growth and place-shaping activity reflective of the council’s aspirations and the key role of the service. The expert programme was also attractive by enabling peer assessment of the service, benefitting from external expertise to inform the process of improvement. It also provided council membership with the reassurance of an independent temperature check over service performance and key recommendations for further improvement and alignment with corporate aspirations going forward.

At project inception stage the following key deliverables were identified:

  • A review of the recent assessment of the planning and enforcement service.
  • Expert advice on additional steps and measures that could contribute to an improvement plan for the service.
  • Advice on how best to embed improvement measures within a structural, operational or cultural redesign as part of a transformational approach.
  • Recommendations on future advisory/leadership capacity-building for the head of service.

Anticipated outcomes were identified as:

  • A >10 per cent efficiency gain across the planning service (as measured across baseline revenue investment for planning application outturn).
  • A more productive, confident, and effective planning and enforcement service.
  • Increased income through effective pre-application and planning performance agreement processes.
  • A service more able to partner effectively to share expertise and learning, or to benefit from synergies across councils.
  • Improved recruitment and retention within the service.
  • An empowered management function that seeks to inspire for strategic outcomes.

The solution

The productivity expert review utilised the expertise of a head of planning from a different authority, who recognised the desire to ensure the planning and enforcement service was in a strong position to be able to deal effectively with its business as usual activities and also new work streams associated with growth projects and to better support council priorities particularly in respect of the economy and homes. The conclusions reached can be summarised as follows:

The planning service has been the subject of not insignificant change in recent years, including as a consequence of restructures and staff changes. Not surprisingly, this has to a degree impacted on the performance of the team. Members have a keen interest in the outputs of the service and a review of the service and the operation of the planning committee has recently been completed. The performance of the planning application team is generally good, notwithstanding the gaps that currently exist in the staffing structure. The team are committed to the delivery of a quality service. A further restructure of the service is planned and whist the analysis of the nature and character of the workload is complicated by the fact that existing staff are covering for the vacant posts, it is evident that any restructure needs to be better related to the caseload.

Performance management is in place and will be further enhanced by a new reporting and monitoring tool that is going to be added to the existing back office system. IT is generally used well but there is scope for making improvement particularly in terms of reducing manual data inputting and making key processes less ‘clunky’.

Moves being made make the service ‘paper light’ in terms of its operation. This gives an ideal opportunity to reflect on how key stages of the application process are undertaken so that they more efficient and effective.

There has been a great deal of interest in the delivery of the enforcement function for the council, particularly in terms of the responsiveness of the service. Key information is already held and with appropriate expression against performance indicators this should be sufficient to demonstrate the level of enforcement activity without the need to resort to case lists. 

Planning committee operates in a professional way but is generally quite lengthy. Parts of the agenda  could  be  delivered  in a  different way which would  not only save time  for  the meeting but also it would significantly reduce the amount of officer time spent  on preparing the committee agenda.

The review resulted in a series of service improvement recommendations across a range of topic areas including customer relations, performance management, prioritisation and resource allocation, ICT systems, work practices and procedures, enforcement and the operation of planning committee. These improvement recommendations included discrete interventions or amendments to working practices and procedures as well as seeking to address wider issues of customer engagement and considering options for the future structure of the service to maximise capacity, agility and alignment with corporate growth aspirations around the delivery of growth.

An important consideration was the involvement of service staff in the project and the sharing of findings with staff and the council membership. Briefings were undertaken with both staff and members prior to the productivity review and its findings being formally considered at meetings of the council’s scrutiny and planning committees.

The impact and how this work is being sustained

The productivity review provided the expected temperature check over the operation and performance of the service, increasing member and leadership confidence as a result of the external expert nature of the advice received. It confirmed and reiterated the understanding within the service and its management that nothing was fundamentally broken and gave a greater focus to the appetite for continual improvement through implementation of many of the recommendations, including seizing upon opportunities to deliver quick wins. Examples of improved productivity arise from a redesign of the process of compiling committee reports and agendas and revised performance management across the enforcement part of the service to be more transparent and accountable as part of the adoption of a local enforcement plan. The structure of fees for pre-application advice has been reviewed, benchmarked against other councils in the local area and the service is about to embark upon a project to give a greater understanding of unit costs of different activities within the service, analysis of staff time on paid / unpaid work areas versus costs in partnership with CIPFA. This will feed into future decisions over resource prioritisation, charging and budget setting set against a background of increasing commercialisation.

The review has also contributed to a series of wider service reorganisation and redesign measures that has seen the implementation of a new structure that is more responsive to the needs of the council’s growth agenda, with this part of the organisation being configured to adopt a more external facing and interventionist role in securing the delivery of growth and infrastructure, including its funding. The council’s resources have been realigned and the economy, regeneration and planning functions have been amalgamated within a single service. A growth and delivery team has been created with key staff resources focused on key projects. The restructure also took the opportunity to address the previous reduction in managerial capacity, which was fundamentally holding back the council’s ability to deliver on strategic ambition.

One of the outcomes sought from the review has been a more productive, confident, and effective planning and enforcement service and greater capacity for the Head of Service to act in a more strategic role. This is evidenced in the council creating strategic partnerships with other authorities within the Greater Exeter area in the areas of economy and planning, working to an award-winning shared strategy for economic growth and prosperity, and producing a Greater Exeter Strategic Plan. The council was also successful in January 2017 in achieving the designation of a garden village within the district requiring workstreams to deliver associated infrastructure requirements including motorway junction upgrade and a railway station. There are also projects in place for town centre regeneration, enhancement and investment. The confidence of the council in the service to deliver upon such projects has been contributed to by the findings of the productivity review. There is a clear direction of travel in ambition and recognition of the need to plan for, allocate, enable and ensure delivery of the growth agenda in a coordinated and focused way.

The outcome of the productivity review is therefore deeper than the improvement recommendations would suggest by feeding into the wider process of cultural and organisational change around a growth agenda.

Lessons learned

That the benefit of the external, independent nature of the expert review cannot be underestimated in providing confidence in its outcomes and conclusions over service performance from the perspective of council leadership and membership.

That the engagement of customers, council membership and staff in the process of continual improvement and productivity gains is vital as is the enablement of staff to find and offer solutions and improvements.

That performance may be improved by the aggregation of small, discrete changes and the importance of achieving quick wins.

That such a review may contribute to service structural reconfiguration, further improvement initiatives and to assist in responding to the Government’s challenge as set out in the Housing White Paper, to take more control and ownership of the ‘delivery’ aspects of planning and growth through consideration of how capacity, intervention and resource can be better aligned.



Jenny Clifford

LGA Contact

Grace Abel

Links to relevant documents

Planning productivity review report: Report of the head of Planning and Regeneration 

Mid Devon District Councils Planning Services Productivity Peer Review 

Local Enforcement Plan: Mid Devon District Council, April 2018

Exeter & Heart of Devon Shared Economic Strategy 2017-20