Benchmark Club – advice update!

This is a catch-up email from the benchmarking club, containing a summary of the hot topics on the forum and some hints and tips to help next week go smoothly. We’ll be doing this regularly now; today the focus is on timesheets (and activity codes !) but quite soon you’ll be thinking about the costs and the fee schedule itself.

‘A’ and ‘B’ (and ‘C’) codes

Let’s recap why we have A and B codes so you can then put a note round to your team to explain. This is a mechanism for keeping time spent on applications we are unsure if we can charge for (the B codes) separate from time spent on applications we are confident will require a fee (the A codes). We are not doing any further sub-division on the basis that simplicity is best. So, we are all going to code our activities in this way:

‘B’ activities are those involving conservation area consents, listed buildings and protected trees

‘A’ activities are those to everything else. Including applications that are currently not charged (like post-Article 4 applications, those from charities on playing fields, discounts from parish councils etc etc)

When we find out the details of the circular, and therefore what really is chargeable / non-chargeable / local discretion, we’re confident we can make sensible decisions on breaking down the time allocation based on the other information you’ll have to hand from the benchmark exercise.

The ‘C’ code for committee decisions is a way of separating out the time spent servicing the members activities. CIPFA code of practice does not allow for members activities to be recharged. But as committee decision making for planning is so integral to the system, its only those activities most directly related to members that are excluded and should be recorded as 370C.

Timetable

You should be working back from the 8th August the last date for submitting your workbook to CIPFA. You will need someone able to round up the final numbers and chase up any final amendments in the week prior to this. You may have to do a bit of project planning around annual leave.

So when you’re preparing your workbook beware of getting ‘stuck’ waiting for absolutely accurate numbers. If you don’t know (and there will be many numbers locked up in corporate databases) make an educated guess, add it to the list of things still to check, and move on. This goes for salaries as much as costs.

You have seven weeks to pull the workbook info together. As long as you ensure you get access to the right people early enough to explain what you need and what they need to give you, you’ll be fine. If you need to remind people that this is about new resources for the Council and not just for planning, don’t be shy of doing this!

Timesheets and codes

Time recording key principles:

Start by reading the FAQs – most questions are answered here;

If you are still unsure which time recording code to use, start by thinking about the purpose of what you’re doing;

The answer might be in your question: ‘where do I code phone calls I make regarding validation issues’? this is validation;

Be practical, there may be the odd thing that you do that will require you to choose the activity code that is ‘less wrong’ if the perfect fit does not exist;

Don’t spend too long thinking about it – ask your project lead or stick a question in our forum;

Perspective – many of you are building up a multi-million pound model and a few hours lost or mis-coded here or there will not have a material impact on the outcome.

Top Ten Time Recording FAQs

1. Who time records?

It’s useful to reminding ourselves why we are doing this it’s to capture the cost to the Council as a whole of dealing with applications.

You are all different, but if you twisted our arm to make us tell you who is in/out, we might say:

* DM Planners: Yes. All of them – whether or not the applicant is picking up the tab.

* Policy Planners: Yes, all of them – this is a whole service benchmark. Includes time spent on planning application consultations, plan preparation, and the ‘everyday’ work of delivering a policy service;

* Planning service admin teams: yes all of them – their input into the process is critical to understanding the costs

The above also applies to parts of the service that are not under planning ‘control’ e.g. a centralized administration team or a call centre, even though a significant percentage of their time will be spent on corporate or non planning activity.

* Legal, engineers, housing, conservation and design, transport, building control, environmental health etc: Yes. Timesheet preferred. But,if there is an recharge for their services, whether or not there is an SLA, you might want to check out the comments below about completing the other costs sheets. The important thing is to arrive at a cost.

* Councillors: No. Not their time, not their allowances, not anything.

* Democratic services: No. The people who service the needs of councillors are best defined as democratic core and should not be recharged.

Be pragmatic – there will be a point at which the effort taken to get the data is going to be more than the sums that you will recover.

Be careful not to double count if you are time sheeting and are recharged.

2. Where do we code work on TPOs and LDOs go?

In the 200 (strategic planning) codes,

You won’t find a code for ‘preparing a TPO’ just as there isn’t one for a conservation area appraisal (or local development order, come to that).

3. Where do we code work on discharge of conditions?

These are treated as applications so use the 300 codes

It is not a problem that they don’t follow every activity like a ‘normal’ application

4. How many hours? Contracted time?

Ask people to account for as much of their contracted time as possible;

Apply common sense/reasonableness to things like comfort breaks – if I nip to the loo while validating applications then it finds itself wrapped up in that activity.

Lunch – use the ‘9 to 5’ principle. My daily contracted time is 7 hours but I am actually at work for 8 when I include my lunch hour.

A basic formula for annualising staff hours is to multiply the weekly hours by 365 days and divide by 7. e.g. 36 x365 / 7 = 1866.

5. Salary details

If you don’t have exact details to hand you can change these at any point in the exercise e.g. if you need to make something up to get started, that’s fine just make sure the figure is correct before sending it in to CIPFA

Salary scales – what we want is your best estimate of what your relevant costs are going to be over the financial year. It’s best to use actual salary. If you know certain salaries are going to adjust later in the year/next year then you can account for that in the ‘Adjustments’ work sheet.

Part time staff: You multiply up their hours to make a ‘pretend’ annual salary.

Remember though, agency staff are (usually) not paid annual leave, so don’t multiply weekly hrs x 52, but by 48 (or whatever feels appropriate) If the agency staff are not going to be there for a whole year, pro rate their salary as if it is for a whole year.

6. Will staff over/under recording their contracted time be an issue?

Time recorded is averaged out as a percentage per activity. If a person records 10% of their time to code 350, 10% of their salary will be the cost.

This means over/under recording is not an issue for the exercise, but might be something you need to look at from a management perspective.

7. Maternity Leave / Vacancies

Maternity leave is recorded in Code 10. You will, however need to factor in how this affects your costs – both in terms of the salary paid to the person on leave, and how you ‘cover’ that person’s work: is it ‘absorbed’ by the rest of the team (in which case the work will be accounted for in the hours the rest of the team spend on it, or have you bought in help to cover the work?).

Should you somehow create cost for a vacancy during the benchmark? Well, it depends on whether you would require that post to deal with the amount of work you’re projecting you’re going to receive. If the answer is “yes”, then you need to ensure that you have captured the cost. Otherwise you won’t be able to cope with the work. You could do this when you are doing the adjustments, by looking at the time percentages that others doing the same job have generated.

8. Committee Costs Code 370c : what goes in here?

The general rule is that this code is for anything that applies ONLY to councillors/ is for the councillor’s benefit.

Report writing and preparation for and officers’ attendance at the public planning committee will go in 370A/B.

Anything that is specifically for the benefit of members, such as pre-committee briefings, should be coded as 370C

(have a look at para 3.25 of the draft CIPFA guidance for planning fee accounting)

9. Where do we code work on Section 106s?

Negotiating the principles of an agreement is code 350 (there is a mistake in the description of this code that says that S106 drafting is 360- it should say 380).

Drafting / drawing it up /getting it signed and sealed: Code 380.

Managing the S106 = Code 480 (there is a mistake in the description of this code that says new agreements should be coded to Code 400 (please ignore this).

10. Time travelling to sites

Applications = Code 350A/B (note: the reference to Code 40 in the description of this code is an error)

Enforcement = Code 430

and finally, a reminder of the Consultation Codes 340 /342

Code 340 is for the work involved preparing and issuing consultations to go out to consultees.

Code 342 is for capturing the council’s time responding to planning applications it has received e.g. highways, urban design or planning policy.

Code 342 even if the time is not recharged, where possible, staff in these areas should time record and provide details of their costs for the benchmark

The costs of government agencies (e.g. the environment agency) and other DMPO statutory consultees are not included.

Consultation between districts and counties presents a risk of double-counting. For now everyone looks after their own cost unless there is a formal SLA and money really does change hands in which case the income is netted off to avoid double-counting.

COSTS

Remember to keep an eye on the advice from CIPFA especially the general principles that are set out in paragraph 3.18. where the accounting principles that should apply to recharges are set out. They are good guidelines for the whole exercise. Think:

* Correct : do the cost reflect the actual hours worth of time you use?

* Transparent : is their enough detail to allocate the costs fairly?

* Flexible : are they regular and in a form you can use to allocate costs (not too bundled)?

* Reality : you should not be paying (or being recharged) for a service you don’t use.

* Predictable : you need to know what recharge will be? Nasty end of year surprises won’t do.

* Material : don’t spend more on chasing absolute accuracy that you will recover.

AND INVOLVE YOUR ACCOUNTANTS IN THE DISCUSSION

1. Which year’s figures should we use?

For working out your costs you should use the figures quoted in your management accounts for the current financial year. This will include the right salary information with current overheads. It should also give you the current expected recharges. As you are half way through the year, use the current forecast with outturns adjusted for what has happened already this year.

For direct costs you will need to make an estimate. Start with your management accounts which are probably based on last year’s direct costs and adjust these for any special circumstances that you can foresee on the horizon ( e.g postage costs will change if the council has adopted a new policy on consultation with neighbours)

2. Is it better to use time sheet costs or use recharge costs for other council contributors to planning?

As Martin says above, the choice is really up to you in the light of your situation. If you can persuade the other services to do time sheets, then you will have a better idea of how much time people put into contributing their expertise to the planning process, and that is going to help the management decisions in the future. But if you are paying a recharge for say environmental health time, and they are time sheeting for you, make sure that you do not double count their costs. Don’t  keep the time sheet costs in and also add the recharge costs on sheet 3. Using the accounting principles above as a guide, decide which of the two is the most appropriate way to record their costs.

FEE CATEGORIES

I expect that most of the questions regarding the fee categories will come in over the next couple of weeks so we will pull these together into the email for next week.

FILLING IN THE FEE SHEETS

There have been some questions about the principle of time recording against development categories and filling in the Resources column on the fee sheets.

1. Are we recording the application type as well as the activity code?

No we aren’t doing this. It would give some useful information but made the time sheets incredibly complicated. The picture you gained would be very incomplete as the sample of application types received in just that 4 week period would be limited.  It  wouldn’t tell you how much time you spent on the more complicated applications because 4 weeks would not be long enough to track them, beginning to end. Maybe we were wrong, but we decided that the complication out weighed the benefits.

2. So how should we fill in the numbers for the resources column?

Do some sampling during the 4 week period. Pick the most common application types that you receive and track the amount of time these take to deal with. Some people are using a simple paper tracking sheet stapled to the front of the case file. Some are using the comments column on the time sheet to record the application number and they will do a read across to the application type at the end of the process.

Ask your officers who deal with these applications day after day. Once you have converted last year’s application work into the new codes (to estimate the quantities for next year)  you be able to ask about experience of real developments for many categories.  Use some of the descriptions of development to have a discussion in your team about how long they take.

To find out how long it takes to do the routine tasks, such as validation, use the hours for codes 320,330 and 340 from your time sheets.  Divide the totals  by the number of applications received during the period to work out an average time per application. Add this to the case officers time estimates. This will give you an informed and pretty accurate figure to work from.

This is a benchmark- one of the benefits is that you don’t have to rely solely on your own judgement, you can compare and test your judgement against your benchmark buddies’ estimates. Some of them will have a longer period of time recording to fall back on.

Thanks for reading. Stay in touch on the forum. It is worth hoovering it all up- it’s pretty high traffic so try subscribing via the daily digest. Many of the questions are repeats, so you’ll be saving your time and ours.

The PAS / CIPFA benchmarking team

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