Enabling Growth in Somerset: Improving the way we work for our people and our customers

Enabling growth

“Amongst other things the partnership that has developed between the County and District Planning Authorities and its associated relationships and culture has enormously improved performance on highways matters and has enabled a coordinated and rapid solution to Phosphates issues which could have been a major barrier to development in Somerset. “ – Senior Leadership Team for Enabling Growth

Somerset Leaders, Chief Executive Officers and Somerset Growth Management Group and Board have a shared ambition to support and facilitate appropriate business and housing growth within the County. The Enabling Growth project is regarded as important in ensuring increased business productivity and improved quality of life for the residents of Somerset. Following the Covid-19 global pandemic, this project takes on increasing importance to ensure that the planning system in Somerset, not only supports the economic recovery, but is a key positive contributor to driving that economic recovery.

Communication and decision making across the four planning authorities and County Highways and Planning teams needed to improve to support Enabling Growth. A new approach required a clearer focus on shared strategic outcomes over process and rules. It should also make the system easier for those developers wishing to take forward development that is consistent with strategic and local plans and policies.

BasfordPowers was commissioned to review the service that are provided, taking into account policies, procedures and the way the Councils all work together across the County planning functions. Through workshops and interviews with officers and members of the Councils a set of improvements were identified and agreed.

  • These improvements included;
    the development of a Growth Charter which supports collaborative working with developers and key stakeholders to enable and support the smooth and swift progression of planning applications and infrastructure provision.
  • Improved use of Technology,
  • Establishment of an early engagement process, developing joint protocols and sharing information, and
  • policy and procedures updates

To achieve these improvements a new way of working and a culture change amongst the organisations was required.

The County wide culture programme, led by Lighting Fires, brought together a team of “Joint Working Promoters”, twelve staff from across the authorities.

Workshops and weekly team meetings generated new ideas which were quickly implemented, such as regular County Highways Surgeries for the Planning authorities, joint site visits and a programme of Lunch & Learns delivered by each Council, typically attended by over fifty staff. The Growth Charter is now in place stating how authority planning and infrastructure staff will work together with customers to enable growth in Somerset.

A successful pilot Buddy Network where staff at different levels made 15 minute calls to colleagues in other authorities is now being rolled out to 150 staff. Anna Clark, Principal Economic Growth Planner at Mendip District Council said:
“I have just caught up with Ben from the County Infrastructure team, we discussed a live planning application we are both dealing with. We then moved on to discuss our career paths and challenges. We also picked up on some personal background whilst discussing our career paths, which gave an interesting insight.”

Monthly newsletters and the sharing of best practice through meetings and shared Teams sites have significantly improved communications to help speed up planning decisions. Authorities are currently working together on a shared approach to working with Developers.

“The culture change work that Lighting Fires led between the County and the District Councils was a real eye-opener to the benefits of closer collaboration between colleagues in different organisations. Julie was instrumental in fostering better relationships and I am confident the measures she has put in place will result in improvements in the planning service across the Councils.” Andy Reading, Sedgemoor District Council

Tangible results:Ongoing monitoring of the Culture Change work included a survey in January 2021 sent to all members of the Culture Change team. When asked, “How likely is it that you would recommend this culture programme to colleagues or another organisation?” every one of the culture team scored 8 or above on a scale of 1-10 (10 being extremely likely).

The same team was asked, “To what extent have you enjoyed being part of the Joint Working Promoter team?” 90% of the respondents said they have enjoyed being part of the culture team “a great deal” or “a lot”.