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Rethinking Planning: Stephen Alexander, Head Of City Planning at City of Wolverhampton Council

Published: Tuesday, 15th May 2018

Rethinking Planning - a new way of working which is delighting applicants and investors, creating jobs and making Wolverhampton a better city.

The headlines

  • Rethinking Planning - a new way of working which is delighting applicants and investors, creating jobs and making Wolverhampton a better city.
  • Rethinking Planning has resulted in our processes being three times faster, the majority of applications being approved within 30 days, very low levels of complaints and a very low number of appeals.

What is the context?

Government cuts to local authority funding hitting planning departments hard and customers experiencing bureaucracy and delay when they submitted planning applications.

What’s the story?

The ‘Rethinking Planning’ approach has 4 core elements: 1) challenging the traditional thinking behind approaches to planning; 2) re-defining the purpose of planning from the customer’s perspective; 3) changing how planning is delivered to achieve its defined purpose and 4) ‘building-in’ true continuous improvement – making it part of ‘how you do things’ (rather reactive problem-solving projects every 18 months).

Who are the key partners?

On the back of our success, we have worked with the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) by supporting a number of other local authorities to enhance performance.  These interventions involve planning officers from Wolverhampton spending up to five days helping planners challenge their existing practices and come up with new ways of working.   The authorities that have benefitted from this support are Halton, Cheshire and Cheshire West, Doncaster, Trafford, Canterbury, Croydon, Harringay, Bromsgrove and Redditch, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Sefton.  We have also been visited by a further 30 councils to study the way we work.

What has been the impact?

Improved performance in the form of reduced end-to-end times, less refusals and appeals and further improved reputation with our customers – all resulting in better quality development and increased delivery.

Staff from councils we have worked with have commented:

“Case officers now feel it is their system… they own it… and take opportunities to change it”.

“…put good staff in a rubbish system, the system wins every time… put practitioners in charge of changing the system… and empower them to make sure the system works for them and the customer.”

“We don’t see it as a one-off project… or a change management project… it’s more fundamental. It is a mind-set and a way of operating.”

“Overall it is speeding things up… every step is assessed for the value it is giving rather than being needed for any bureaucratic purpose.”

“Customers are pleased… getting decisions so quickly… Officers decide ‘is it going to give the customer a better experience’… they’re customer, not procedure-focused’.

“…there’s an assumption it’s difficult and needs lots of money… you can free up so much time by doing only what your customers want and concentrating on getting it right first time.”

What have been the key elements of success?

We focused on good customer service and meeting our purpose – enabling good development in the public interest. We adopted a set of principles to guide our way of working and tools to measure our true success, in line with our purpose rather than targets.

What has been learned?

Tampering with a current approach can only ever result in doing things better, whereas Wolverhampton planners committed to doing better things (there is a huge difference). That means starting with a blank sheet of paper – stating clearly the purpose of the new system and designing a workflow that would achieve that, on paper, with zero waste activity. To enable this, leaders and people who do the work take a real assignment and look at it as if it is the first time it has been seen.

In practice, this involved the team taking planning applications one by one and fulfilling them as cleanly and with as little waste activity as possible.  Once each case was completed they rigorously analysed the experiment to understand how it worked and what was required to make the next flow even more smoothly. By experimenting with real work in this way, in a safe experimental environment, the organisation can learn empirically what is required to achieve purpose cleanly. This learning can then be translated into a robust system redesign.

When the new design is stable, work volumes can be slowly ramped up, adding capacity to the team as required until it can handle all the current demand. Challenging, incredibly hard work but ultimately very simple for those who have unlearned current thinking about the design and management of work.

Stephen Alexander

Tel. Office: 01902 555610

Tel. Mobile: 07771 836400


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