The challenge: 
 
In 2021, Bolton Council’s planning service was in a difficult place. Significant volumes of serious complaints about the responsiveness, pace, and quality of planners’ work were being fielded by Members and senior leaders at the council. The people receiving those complaints sometimes struggled to understand the causes of the slow, poor service that was being reported – quarterly statistics showed that their service was handling no more applications per officer than in neighbouring boroughs, they had similar numbers of people working in their service, and their planners and pacemakers were trusted professionals. So, what was the problem? 
 
To find out, Bolton Council’s Chief Executive and leadership team had asked the planning service to produce a ‘response plan’ - including a list of actions to reduce the number of complaints they were receiving. But overwhelming day-to-day workload pressures meant that creating a ‘response plan’ outlining the failings of the service, and an improvement project to tackle them, felt unachievable. The perception that a ‘response plan’ produced by the planning service lay blame for any failings primarily with them contributed to the feelings of isolation within the team. They often felt alone in dealing with the stress caused by their high workload without broader support in place. Some of the team had already voiced concerns surrounding unfit IT systems, but sometimes felt unheard and that prevailing expectations of them were unreasonable. 
 
As a result, the planning service and wider council had lost hope that things could, and would, get better. Morale was at an all-time low, and “that’s just the way things are at Bolton” was the accepted view among a team that had become resigned to service failures. Bolton’s planning service needed a ‘response plan’ that truly understood the problems they were facing and listened to the needs of planners. So, they asked Mondrem for our help. 
 
The plan: 
 
We began by measuring workload for the team. Bolton’s DM team were stuck in a cycle of high work-in-progress and low productivity. They had more work-in-progress than they could possibly do, and too little capacity to reduce it to a reasonable level. This inflated work-in-progress led to high failure demand from time spent dealing with customer complaints and enquiries. And resulting lower productivity had locked the team into a long-term imbalance between workload and capacity. 
 
When we examined the balance of workload and capacity, we found that with current process, productivity and systems: 
 
To address these issues would require 2 extra planners – the yearly cost to do that would be approximately £80,000 per year. 
To reduce WiP from current levels to a healthy 5-week position would require 6 extra planners over a 3-month period or 3 planners over 6 months - the one-off cost to do that with agency planners would be approximately £108,000. 
 
Like most local authority planning services, Bolton did not have the budget to hire any additional planners. And because its reputation was struggling, the likelihood of attracting applicants to fill vacant posts was low. 
 
What we did: 
 
The first and most important thing was to bring the council’s planning service, Members, and the Corporate Leadership team together to create a shared understanding and ownership of the root causes of service failures - only then could they explore and experiment solutions and support and challenge each other to deliver them. 
 
Their solutions included: 
 
Asking regularly about the team’s wellbeing and fixing the things that were frustrating them and their efforts. 
Removing enforcement responsibilities from planners’ that they were already struggling to fulfil, and carefully deciding to recruit additional officers into those roles. 
Introducing a fast-track approach to small schemes, no matter when they were received, so the backlog of applications was tackled from the front - a way that would make the highest impact. 
Maximising the time planners had to assess, write up and make decisions on backlogged planning applications by: 
Protecting their time from enquiries and complaints – by seconding someone in to respond from the Exec PA department. 
Speeding up assessments by improving the quality of applications received and reducing the right to amend applications. 
Speeding up report-writing and sign-off by introducing templates. 
Protecting planners from crushing caseloads that were impossible to manage by agreeing a maximum capacity caseload and not allocating applications until there was a case officer who could take them. 
 
 
The result: 
 
Now, Bolton Council can be confident in their planning service. They have reduced their work-in-progress by over 70%. And with effective transformation tools and techniques, they have a proven track record of making the changes needed to deliver success. 
 
Interested to learn more?  
 
Get in touch today: talkwithus@mondrem.co.uk 
Tagged as: planning, publicservices
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