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How one planning department is smartening up their customer approach

06 December 2017 Author: Brett Leahy

Local authority planning departments still have a grey and ‘cardigan wearing’ image for the majority of people, not always helped by fly on the wall documentaries or sitcoms.  Few trust that ‘the Council’ can deliver a fast and responsive customer service because experience has told them otherwise.

Being commercial is about thinking through the processes used day to day and... creating capacity to deliver services that people are willing to pay more for. 

Now partly that is unfair on the majority of departments whose staff work to deliver services within the statutory timescales. 

But in an age where we all want to do business as quickly and as easily as possible, it is entirely possible, and utterly essential that planning services keep pace with customer needs and expectations. 

Now more than ever local authorities need to use all the commercial tricks of the trade to generate income and capture repeat business from satisfied customers.

Culture change

This takes a change of culture from within local authorities where working commercially is traditionally not a place where most public services have come from. 

To change culture needs strong leadership around a clear and common goal.  Yes of course there is the ‘statutory’ duty around determining planning applications – that is a given – but why not be driven by a commercial purpose too? 

Being commercial is not about ‘making money’ – public services are not allowed to do that anyway – it is thinking through the processes used day to day, and the services offered (or could be offered) and creating capacity to deliver services that people are willing to pay more for.  Any ‘surplus’ income can be ploughed back into services to make them better. 

It’s a virtuous circle of commercialisation and continuous improvement. It opens up a world of opportunities once you are in a place that puts the customer (the applicant) first.

Demand for faster, more personalised service 

Are some customers willing to pay more for a fast track service where they want a quick result?  Yes of course.  The national targets around determining planning applications are of no interest if all you want is a fast, efficient, reliable service.  Local planning authorities who realise that can stop limiting their performance horizons to an imposed target and start raising the bar locally.

Are some customers willing to pay for a service that guarantees timescales to match their own project milestones?  Absolutely.  The outcome can never be guaranteed, but certainty over when certain decisions will be reached can be. 

Do people still value direct customer contact and working with a ‘real’ person?  Who doesn’t?  Will they pay for that?  In some cases - yes.  Why should it only the Chief Executive or senior officials who have a profile on the Council’s website?  They have the ultimate responsibility and accountability for delivery services but day to day they are not the ones dealing with your planning application.

A premium planning service

Milton Keynes Council’s Planning Department have been working in support of a commercial purpose in the last year.  The Department have recently launched a new ‘Planning Hub’ which provides a streamlined facility for planning information and services to assist all customers, agents and residents living or working within Milton Keynes.

The all new Planning Hub contains the Premium Planning Service which includes information and assistance on Planning Performance Agreements, our Pre-Application Advice Service and 'Select a Planning Officer'. 

The service is no longer ‘faceless’ - you can view photos and bios of all the professional staff who are dealing with your application.  A ‘Customer Charter’ also sets out standards of service that you can expect as a customer.

This isn’t just wrapping though.  This is indicative of a focussed and savvy Planning Department whose customer service reputation is growing amongst developers and public alike. 

Customers are paying extra for faster or more complex arrangements, geared to their needs, not the national performance targets.  In the last 12 months this has made the department financially self-sufficient and bringing in a trading surplus. It’s good for the Council’s coffers and great for the customer. This is no drab Planning Department but rapidly becoming a fabulous one.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Brett Leahy

Brett Leahy

Brett Leahy is Head of Planning at Milton Keynes Council with responsibility for Development Management, Planning Policy, Infrastructure, Obligations, Technical Support Team and Land Charges.