Privatising planning?

Reports this week suggest that George Osborne is asking ministers to look into the prospect of getting private firms to deliver public services in an effort to cut around £20 billion from state expenditure.

Some politicians have jumped at the chance to implement these ideas. Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, has already suggested plans to reform the prison system, which include selling off inner-city Victorian jails in favour of new, modern prisons that could be run by the private sector.

But in what other departments could such proposals take place?

Plans to introduce more market forces into the NHS during the last Parliament were swiftly canned when public outcry threatened to destabilise the Coalition Government. Likewise, privatisation within the Department of Defence has faced criticism particularly over the use of private security firms in conflict zones in the Middle East. With this in mind, it would be hard for the Conservatives, even though they have a majority in the House of Commons, to implement similar proposals a second time round.

That said, the suggestions from the Treasury, could offer a real opportunity for some companies to get involved in delivering quality and efficient public services which will also save taxpayers billions each year. But, how would such companies get involved in such initiatives and what services could be “sold off?”

As we have written many times before, the state of the UK planning system is far from ideal. Planning authorities are under-resourced, over-worked, and losing their best people to the private sector. This has led to some (possibly unfair) fears that planning departments are now being run by younger, less-experienced planners who have fewer skills in town planning, masterplanning and delivering large-scale development.

The Liberal Democrat peer and former Leader of Liverpool City Council, Mike Storey, once suggested to me that there could be scope for allowing ‘on the job training’ for new planning officers which could be funded and perhaps delivered by the private sector. This idea would represent an interesting possibility, particularly as it would give the private sector (the biggest driving force behind regeneration and development) the opportunity to take part in shaping a more productive, amenable and user-friendly planning system.

There are obviously limits to what services can be delivered by the private sector. It would be very hard for the Treasury to be run, in any part, by a private organisation, for instance. However it would be interesting to see the Department of Communities and Local Government consider George Osborne’s idea and look into how planners, developers, and others involved in the regeneration sector, could assist in making a more efficient and less costly planning system.

Food for thought for Greg Clark as he is tasked by the Treasury to seek new ways of saving money at DCLG.

Your Comments

Read our comments policy here

Didn’t we privatise planning a long time ago? I recall LPAs using consultancies to supplement resources as far back as the mid 90s, and of course many have now been completely outsourced for several years.
The question is, who will continue to pay for the outsourcing? Until now it’s largely been drawn from Council coffers – for the last 10 years, sans Planning Performance Grant.
Planning Performance Agreements – where developers can pay for an improved resource/timescale have yet to come into widespread use, presumably because there is such little available resource to pay for.
Sadly, a fundamental overhaul of the system to make it profitable and efficient sounds sexy, but I suspect is more likely to end the way of CIL – a fine idea, badly delivered.

By Steve Edgeller

The idea that such a move will be cheaper or more efficient is hugely arguable. Is private delivery of outsourced services by Capita or the like in any way cheaper? Many local authorities are taking services back in house due to the many ‘drags’ that involving private sector contractors in services entails. Contracting issues and poor wages mitigate against delivering value for money. The use of agency labour in social services damages continuity. The problems of conflicts of interest here could also be legion. Note also the author uses the term “Regeneration” in its hackneyed sense to mean “development which might be a bit more difficult than normal and require some element of public subsidy for us to shift our lazy a**es”, What is the private sector’s track record in actual regeneration of communities and the lives of individual people in places, rather than simply social cleansing? Not good I’d say. The government isn’t actually interested in this aspect of regeneration and neither is the private sector.

By Sceptic