Taxpayer foots £150k bill for collapse of planning service

What the garden looked like before

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council may have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to pull out of a planning partnership ‘fiasco’ launched last June.

A shared service with Swale and Maidstone councils was designed to increase efficiency and reduce costs, with a reduction in staff numbers expected to save TWBC £74,000 a year.

But just 14 months in, at a cabinet meeting in August, the decision was made to set aside £150,000 to revert to a stand-alone service, with TWBC having spent £70,000 more in the first year of the joint service than it spent in the previous year.

These costs are said to be ‘increasing’, and the plans to withdraw were approved at a joint cabinet meeting in Maidstone on November 5.

Labour borough councillor Alain Lewis said: “It’s a shame they had to spend all that money in the first place to find out it was a fiasco, and now have to spend more to get out of it.

“It’s disappointing to see that money wasted. It’s a warning to anybody else looking at doing this in future, there’s a lot of planning that has to go into these things, you can’t just go into them lightly.”

As well as the one-off cost of bringing the service back in-house, which includes redundancies, ‘software implementation’ and legal advice, TWBC must also set aside funds to cover any costs incurred by Maidstone and Swale councils as a result of their withdrawal.

Apart from ‘reducing overall cost to partners’, the joint service was formed to provide a ‘high performing planning support service that delivers high quality, accurate and timely support to customers’.

But as costs have risen, performance has fallen, with the number of Tunbridge Wells planning applications validated within five working days dropping from 87 per cent in 2012-13 to 34 per cent in 2014-15 under the new partnership.

Sheridan Bowie, chairman of Southborough Town Council’s planning committee said: “We’ve seen some effects from the shared service on the town council side.

“Things take longer and it doesn’t seem to be as efficient. We’ve seen a lack of information.

“In hindsight, it’s a shame one spends all that money going into it and spends it all over again to come out.

“The official line is a group of councils don’t have a good enough knowledge of the historic complexities behind planning in Tunbridge Wells.

“In reality it’s not working efficiently enough and there are fears they won’t meet government targets.
“That could lead to the government interfering and ultimately taking over control of the planning department.”

Cllr Alan McDermott, TWBC cabinet member for planning, said: “When the decision was taken to establish the shared service, the planning world was very different and TWBC has arguably the most complex environment in which to operate a regulatory planning function.

“TWBC has had a significant increase in planning applications that could not have been forecast.
“There is a cost to bringing the service back to Tunbridge Wells, but there are savings too, and I think it’s a price worth paying to ensure we deliver a service that meets the needs of our planning clients.

“Was it all a waste? No.”

A TWBC spokesman said: “The desire to bring the planning support service back in-house is not about money, it is about providing a high quality planning service and one more responsive to ongoing changes in the planning system. “The forecast expenditure, if the service comes back, will mean a net saving for 2016/17 based on forecast expenditure. There is a one-off return cost which will be mitigated by the reduction in expenditure and paid back within two years.”

Revealed: the service manager who had no ‘planning experience’

The shared service was run by a manager with ‘no direct experience of planning’, it has emerged.
An auditors’ report highlights the ‘mistakes’ that led to the failure of the service.

The report was the result of a review the councils commissioned Mid Kent Audit to conduct last August, after delays and poor customer service.

Three major failings were highlighted, the first ‘not employing a recognised project methodology’.

As no minutes were taken at project board meetings, it is ‘unclear why the board failed to select and pursue a methodology and why key documentation such as a detailed plan and risk register were not created and maintained’.

The absence of a detailed plan meant tasks ‘happened late in an uncontrolled manner that impaired their effectiveness’, and the absence of a risk register meant ‘issues that could have been anticipated and mitigated, such as the increase in planning applications, had significant adverse impacts’.

The second failing was ‘not fully establishing the project’s scope and complexity’, with many involved ‘failing to acknowledge and account for several matters that added significantly to the complexity of the task’.

These included ‘combining the services under a single manager with no direct experience of planning’.
The third was ‘attempting delivery within existing resources’, which led to increased pressure, and meant the project was delivered without the required expertise or time.

A staff survey revealed less than one in three felt well informed or confident they understood day-to-day work, and less than one in five believed the project was under control.

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