Nostalgic for 2020
I have been reading an article about how the clever re-packaging of nostalgia is key to the success of popular TV shows like Strictly and Bake-Off. These shows provide entertainment that feels modern and at the same time, familiar and safe. The article asks whether this re-packaging of the safe and familiar is just a retreat from a frightening future?
It got me thinking about the financial future for local government; you know the one that’s just 3 years’ away; the one where services will be expected to pay for themselves, no longer propped up by subsidies like the Revenue Support Grant?
Will the positive noises we are finally hearing from a government waking up (the private sector have joined the chorus) to the resourcing crisis, and the mooted increase in fees, distract us from this much more frightening (not-so-far-away-it’s-imminent) resourcing future? In the short term an increase in fees may take a bit of the pressure off, plug an existing gap perhaps, but it won’t, on its own, come anywhere near being enough to meet the 2020 funding challenge. How are planning services preparing?
Minding the (funding) gap
The size of the challenge will be different for different places. Take a look at this picture produced using our new ‘Productivity & Resourcing Review’. It represents the funding gap between application fee income and the costs of delivering the service. This is a group of councils working together to imagine/design what a regional planning offer might look like. It shows the stark reality for some councils of the funding gap that has to be bridged between now and 2020.
Each horizontal bar represents a council. The black dots on the graphic represent the income received from fees. The further to the right your black dot is of the coloured column (representing the cost of the different types of work the planning service does), the less gap there is to bridge.
Productivity & Resources
Councils need to start planning now for how they are going to bridge the gap. How many know what their gap looks like or how big it is? Without having done that piece of work, it’s difficult to even start. For many in this group of councils the challenge may be difficult because of the size of the gap, but they are ahead of the game using PAS’s Productivity & Resource Review to understand where the biggest holes are and the potential threats and opportunities that lie ahead. I fear many will wait too long to do this and then realise that time has run out to do anything meaningful.
There’s competition too!
Councils being allowed to set their own planning fees would close the funding gap more quickly, and it will be an option in some guise for councils going head-to-head with alternative providers in the pilot areas (when they eventually start). The alternative provider agenda may be slower in coming that first thought but it isn’t going away. 41 per cent of the planning consultancies in the recent PlanningResource survey expressed an interest in becoming a provider and 43 per cent (the same lot?) felt that councils setting their own planning fees was a bad idea.
…and they’ll be hungry
Competition will begin with just smaller applications and some places may not, in the long-run, mind losing some of that work to the private sector. Many councils though are beginning to think about what operating in a competitive market will mean for their income when the inevitable happens and the competition moves into the major applications market and comes calling for its crown jewels. Here’s another picture for the same set of councils mentioned earlier and shows how much of their overall income comes from fees for majors.
For some of these councils fee income for majors is approaching or is over half of total fee income. Councils that are alive to this are beginning to look NOW at developing a competitive offer to customers on major applications so that they are ready to compete in the most lucrative planning applications market.
Fear comes from lack of control
Like most things that frighten us, it is the extent of control we have over a situation that plays a big part. Take devolution for example (go on, take it, please). For the pro-devolution areas no one really knows what will it will actually mean to deliver a planning service once you have control of finances, and for those rejecting the idea, what is the devolved alternative? I was struck by something that the LGA’s own Lord Porter said at our staff conference a week or so back – he is of the firm belief that those areas not embracing the devolution deals now are likely to miss the boat forever.
I am not banging the drum for devolution or any other form of self-determination or financing model for local government. What I and PAS are doing is listening to and working with the councils that are already and actively preparing to exert some control over an uncertain future with no outside financial support.
A theme deserving serious attention
So, what’s to be done? The PAS Conference in March 2017 will be dedicated to helping planning services navigate a way through a currently uncertain present (we *should* have a White Paper by then) and figuring out how to make the journey to and beyond 2020 and survive.
I’m unofficially at the moment calling our conference ‘re-imagining the planning service of the future’. We’ll have, of course, DCLG along to discuss first-hand the implications of a fresh White Paper, and the opportunity to hear from, debate and challenge a stellar bunch of Chief Execs, planners, councillors and private sector colleagues that are already thinking about how to change and re-invent planning to meet the challenges up to and beyond 2020. Book on and join us here.