Planning department relies on costly consultants to clear caseload backlog

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Bedford Borough Hall

Bedford Borough Council offers a “challenging but rewarding career” for planners, offers “almost everything” a planner is likely to experience, but the high caseload needs to be tackled.

Feedback from a recent Planning Advisory Service (PAS) peer review of Bedford Borough Council’s Development Management (DM) department was presented to the Planning Review Task & Finish Group last week (Thursday 10 March).

Jon Shortland, chief officer – planning, infrastructure & economic growth, said: “[Among] the key messages coming out of the review is that we have a core of experienced and dedicated planning officers.

“That Bedford can offer a challenging, but rewarding, career for planners, that there’s a real need to tackle the large number of open cases and high officer caseloads.

“But if open cases are reduced and appointments made, then caseloads should be manageable.

“However recruitment is likely to remain challenging and we need to pursue other solutions, for example the more flexible use of new and existing resources,” he said.

Councillor Kay Burley (Labour, Kempston Central & East Ward), said: “We’ve just set a budget literally five minutes ago.

“Have we got the money to recruit, is it still there in the budget?”

Mr Shortland replied: “We have agreed as part of the budget for the coming year that we can appoint some additional planners on top of the number who were previously employed.

“We’ve also made some inroads into appointing those planners already.

“So from the turn of the year, until now, we’ve actually managed to appoint five new planners, I would say that three of them are on agency terms rather than permanent employees.

“So far I’ve been impressed with the efforts of all three of the agency employees who’ve joined us,” he said.

The review also suggested a one-off consultancy commission to come in and help reduce the backlog, Mr Shortland told the meeting. He added that the council has signed a contract with Capita to help deal with the backlog.

Mr Shortland told the task and finish group that Capita has a relationship with Luton Borough Council.

“The report we had from Luton officers was that they were, I think, broadly happy with the service they were receiving,” he said.

Councillor Burley said: “The consultancy that’s coming in to deal with the backlog, my feeling about consultants is they are quite expensive, as far as I can understand, and was that in the budget, or where is it coming from?

“I don’t know whether you can tell us how much it is, but it must be quite expensive, experience shows us that consultancies are quite expensive.”

Mr Shortland replied: “Yes, I don’t think we probably want to talk about the exact costs in a public meeting.”

“We have got agreement to spend the money, and we have signed the contract to spend the money, so it will happen.”

“So in terms of resourcing going into the new year, we are a lot better off than we were at this time last year because we’ve got extra posts in the structure which are funded, and we’ve made some inroads into appointing people to them.

“But it’s not all good news, one of those five people who has joined us has actually handed their resignation in last week, so we’re out to recruitment again very shortly.”

Councillor Burley asked: “Did I see somewhere about making some contact with a university or education for planners?”

Mr Shortland said: “We already have an arrangement whereby we train our planners when they join us, and that includes a planning master’s degree with the London South Bank University, we’ve got three people on courses with them at the moment.

“Two of our vacancies are for new graduate planners because we’ve promoted the two who we’ve previously appointed, they both proved to be very good officers and are now fully-fledged planning officers.

“We have two vacancies which we will be looking to fill as soon as we can and for those two people to start courses at South Bank in September.

“So yes you’re right, we are looking to work in partnership with universities to make sure that we both attract people, because South Bank can help us with the recruitment process as well.

“And then once we’ve recruited them to make sure that they’re properly trained and become the most useful officers that they can in the shortest possible time.”

Councillor Henry Vann (LibDems, De Parys Ward) said: “This is excellent work from everybody involved in providing that training.

“This is kind of what we want in our messaging, that Bedford is one of the best places in the country to come and learn to be a planner because we’re a microcosm of almost everything that you’re likely to experience.

“The two graduate planners who were recruited and are now promoted to planning officers, that is a really good success story, and if we recruit two more in then it’s the kind of growing your own which we have done before in social work as well.”

Councillor Jonathan Abbott (LibDems, Oakley Ward), the Planning Committee chair, said: “It’s good to see that we’re making a start on hitting the backlog, and it’s good that we’re actually we’re taking that away from the day-to-day work of our officers.

“Because it could be quite demoralizing for a new officer to come in and to be given this massive caseload so we can get that down.

“The challenge we have is, if it’s a nice place to work people won’t want to leave, so it’s just ensuring the backlog doesn’t appear again,” he said.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter

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