Many people have got quite cross about the “alternative providers” bit of the Housing and Planning Bill. We’ve been doing some work getting some solid, sensible council people in the same room as DCLG and getting some of the issues out in the open. Having heard the idea kicked around from several angles I offer here a positive, step-by-step guide to making this thing work. Kind of like a thought experiment. A bit like when you ask a vegetarian “But if you had to eat a bit of an animal, would you eat a sausage or a lamp chop ?”.
But before we start, lets set the scene. I’ve heard some people talk about this proposal as if it is like the monopoly previously held by the Royal Mail being opened up to competition. This is not a helpful analogy, because the customer in that situation is the person receiving a parcel, and only them. I think a better analogy is the liberalisation of the places where people can get married. Previously only religious places and registry offices. Now, loads of different kinds of places have a registration to carry out marriages. The bride & groom are the customer, but the State is also a participant and maintains an interest in the service being done correctly (and under cover).
Who might alternative providers be ?
Alternative providers (APs) would have to be *nuts* to try and do everything a council does. Think of the preparation that would be required to be able to offer the sheer range of applications that a council must deal with. The cost of gearing up for the rare things just makes no sense. For this to work, we have to observe Pareto and allow for AP’s to organise for doing the common things well and cheaply.
This approach would also suit SMEs and their insurers. I might specialise in shop-fronts. I have a pretty good idea of how and where to advertise for customers, and because it’s all I do I *know* how the shop-front system works. You might specialise in all applications in the Kensal Rise conservation area. Again, you know the history and the bits of the place that really matter and where there is some room for a bit of wiggle. As well as some of the characters from KRRA. And so it goes on. Her thing is trees – his is extensions. And yes, many of the people delivering these services are going to be the people currently sitting in council planning departments.
Of course, allowing APs to stake out a specialism (and drive costs down) comes at a price. Most obviously APs will not want to offer a heritage service without heritage applications attracting a fair fee. But just as plainly Councils won’t want to be left with the horrid applications that cannot be made to work financially. Each application needs a fair fee (set by the council) and if people can undercut it then good luck to them. And if the undercutting is so large that lots of work starts to disappear then councils will need to revise their fees down or accept its permanent loss.
How will it work in practice ?
For people who aren’t up close with the application process there is a hope that somehow the “processing” and “decision” bits of the whole divide neatly into chunks which can seamlessly be navigated. I’m afraid not.
It gets a bit deep for a blog post, so I’ll just lay down the three problems that need to be part of the approach. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but each requires quite a big change to the status quo.
- Consultation: Councillors particularly want to know what is going on and will not want to check two (or three, or four) places to see which applications are on the weekly list. The risk of JR when there are multiple places things may (or may not) have been publicised goes up exponentially. Somehow all the cases being consulted by providers A, B and C need to be in the same place. The provider should be invisible to consultees – it requires a single website (in the cloud) to knit it together.
- Policy: Planning decisions are strongly driven by policy. Hitherto each planning policy team has had a captive audience in the DM colleagues, which is one reason why plans are such enormous and arcane things. But what if you worked in six boroughs ? How would you navigate and apply each council’s policy ? What’s stopping each borough setting out their approach in a common framework and spatially so it was immediately obvious how policies ‘bit’ on every site in the six boroughs? The idea is quite liberating and so far removed from current practice that it sounds quite bonkers.
- Quality: Managing for decision-making quality is at present a management process. As a standard part of staff supervision the quality of work is coached and managed upwards, and ultimately there is a trust relationship between report-writer and decision-maker. How would a decision-maker react if their team’s reports came to them totally cold ? And anonymised so she couldn’t tell who had created which report ? In that situation you would want to have some kind of spot-check and sanction regime to manage quality, as well (perhaps) for APs to signal when something might be borderline or to ask for help. Like staff do.
And yes, insurance is part of the answer. But it can’t be all of it.
Why should anyone bother ?
If these barriers can be overcome what might happen if this thing takes off ? The APs, of course, will want to make a small profit on the work and they might be able to package the service along with others (building control) to form a nice customer-friendly little unit.
But more broadly there are other possible good outcomes from this
- Councils can compete for talent. Allowing market forces cuts both ways, and fees can be set at a level that allows councils to pay market rates for good people.
- Service offers can be made more flexible. The national system is a straight-jacket. Innovators in councils would *love* to be able to change the system to make it a better fit to local needs. Most applicants are not cost sensitive, but quality sensitive. Fewer conditions ? Quicker turnarounds ?
- Focus. Why should councils care that much what householders are doing to their kitchens ? Place-making – that is the job that should exercise councils