Spring is in the air…

So a busy month and finally some sunshine… I am currently sitting here on the train from Liverpool Street to Cambridge on a beautifully sunny Friday afternoon…. It feels a million miles away from the snowbound #EssexDesignGuide launch and March and April blues…

#Plantech – well it’s been a little quiet on this front recently but being end of financial year in #localgov there has been a little more pressing issues….! I am determined to progress this a little further this year and I met with a colleague from @participatr last month and was incredibly impressed by the drive to really look at things differently in relation to engagement and communities. I have commented on tech previously and in my view it has to be an enabler rather than a sticking plaster so we have to ensure the underpinning systems are not ignored as well. However the engagement thing really strikes home – as with all democratic processes getting a proportional representation is really the only robust way of having a robust evidence base and some of the emerging #plantech including that being introduced by companies such as participatr and cityzone are going to be integral in getting a clear picture of evolving societal needs.

There is also massive scope to expand their platforms to deliver other key communication, the real challenge will be #localgov taking a view to fundamentally rethink the way they engage and this may take some time…. But the carrot will be its ability to ensure that evidence bases are not questioned by NIMBYISM from just one demographic and ultimately expedite planning process to deliver development that communities actually need and want…

In other #planning news the recent #NPPF consultation was interesting to review and I am sure the comments back to #MHCLG will be overwhelming (and not all positive J). I am particularly interested in the future of combined authorities and the delivery of strategic plans at a more regional level, also the focus on design is welcome, however it will no doubt highlight the continuing shortage of skills in these areas. I won’t go into too much detail as we will be undertaking a full review once the consultation is over. In addition with the release of the #Raynsford interim report I would really expect some coordination of approach to the fundamental way we move planning forward in the UK.

In other news I was a speaker at the local government strategy forum earlier this month and it was an enjoyable event at a great venue. I tried to pose some food for thought in my presentation by addressing the opportunities and challenges around commercialisation an d highlighting the potential success of getting trading right… This is a theme I will continue to talk about with as I feel this is a subject surrounded by ambiguity and misunderstanding. I was slightly disappointed that the focus of the forum was so #digital orientated, as although this is certainly critical in futureproofing the sector, there are many other areas which #localgov needs to address the fundamentals of as well in order to achieve progress in the challenges we face. Hopefully some of the feedback will enable for more diversity at the next event.

See you next time…

Commercial or just BAU?

Ahhhh… Local Government…. We do seem to have  perpetual habit of jumping on the next silver bullet in blind faith it will give us that long term financial stability that is so desperately needed in the sector…. #Transformation #Digital #Commercial ?!? Although generally those pesky private sector companies will find a way to sell it to us quicker than we can start implementing it to any effect… Ok maybe I’m being facetious? However…..

I do have a little bugbear about the last one; Commercial? No, just good business management….

I am actually not seeing a great number of councils embedding this particularly well (if at all…) please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. This is probably because we really have no idea what it means in the context of Local Government? Let’s recap;

When I came to public sector I kept hearing the acronym BAU – and for a while I really didn’t know what this meant… well for those of you not in the loop its Business As Usual. However in real terms there are some real fundamental systems missing from this being translated in to practices in my experience. Firstly, there is a big difference between trading successfully as a commercial entity, and just good business management practice, and it does seem as if we have amalgamated all this into one solution; Commercialisation.

However in my experience across both private and public sectors unless we get the fundamentals of simple business management systems and processes right, I cannot understand how we can achieve any commercial sensibilities, or indeed be self-aware and savvy enough to maximise our own opportunities within the marketplace.

Local Authorities are all about delivering outcomes and professional services and are absolutely businesses in there own niche market, therefore they can be run as such. However, there are some very core basics that I don’t feel being demonstrated across the sector, certainly around time recording and resource management systems. IMO these are pretty straightforward i.e. how much does your team cost you in salaries, on costs etc., what are the tasks they are delivering and how much time are they spending per day on it? Equate this to the cost of the overhead and bingo! We are starting to build a more coherent picture and begin to understand the details behind our revenue spend and hence build our commercial understanding.

If you run an outcome based professional services business, resources, people management and project timeline forecasting is a critically important element. Especially in interpreting financial and business management baseline data from which we can make resourcing improvements, set meaningful metrics and KPIs and wait for it….. commission and procure more effectively!

Surely getting this right would give us a platform to deliver better value and understand and manage our team’s time more effectively…? Begin adding in assets, rent costs, finance HR etc. and then you can really make some in-roads into building a more commercially aware sector – and guess what? No cold calling or door to door sales involved!!

On a serious note this will give authorities an much better strategic view of those areas which may have viability to trade and those which could be commissioned? I mean how do you know if a private sector company can achieve your objectives at better value if you don’t actually know the true cost of its delivery in house? Hmmmm…

I am not saying that this is the silver bullet either but I really I think just managing both financially and in terms of good business processes is the starting point for effective behavioural and cultural change which can further drive many of the other solutions that the sector is looking to embed. These really are as simple as getting your teams to start filling out timesheets weekly, introducing project forecasting and potential work pipelines, regularly running reports on time spent and building up true reflective day rate costs of your personnel which reflect all of you overheads. Ask your colleagues who deliver capital projects they are probably half way to doing some of this without being aware of its wider importance.

Business Management

With these core tools in hand councils can then be much more confident in entering the market as a supplier rather than just a buyer and begin to trade. The public sector market is in enormous and who are better placed to deliver some of the bespoke services and output we require than those who have been successful at it within our own sector. I would much rather buy in expertise on transformation from a local authority that had successfully implemented and delivered it within their own authority than going out to market? Shared services, shared expertise and shared business and financial awareness bespoke for our sector could really add context to the word  #Commercial when used talking about Local Government, surely?

Local Government Strategy Forum, #EDG2018 and The Forests of Essex…

So it’s been a bit of a whirlwind month, hence the reason for my slightly tardy November blog… Apologies!

I started the month off in conversations with Paul Hackett at the Smith Institute following the parliamentary launch of their research on the growing number of Local Housing Companies (LHCs) which are being formed by Local Authorities to innovate in delivering multiple outcomes whilst generating income. The general feel is that although this is not a ‘silver bullet’ to either the housing crisis, nor financial positions of local government, it is an exciting option for getting the public sector back involved in building houses for its residents and delivering development. From a commercial perspective there will be real opportunities to look inwards and understand what skills the sector has in this to form successful business to assist on delivering housing development using its own resources before going out to procure private sector partners for these ventures. Place Services and Essex Housing have been working with LHCs in the region and there is a niche market for public sector businesses to occupy should the challenge be accepted..!

The next item on the agenda was my attendance at The Local Government Strategy Forum on the 7th and 8th November. This was a great event hosted by AhMedia and was a really interesting focus on where colleagues across the sector in terms of the financial pressures and change required in order to continue delivering critical public services into the future. The focus was really around transformation and digital which gave some useful insight. However I was interested to see the lack of commercial focus from organisations especially around trading opportunities or more income based models for sharing services. Having fed this back I have been informed that commercialisation will be one of the themes for the next event in May (I have even been asked to present on it!). The agenda for the previous event can be found here for some #LocalGov bedtime reading!

With some of these issues very much in the front of my mind we have begun to have discussions with my wider Essex colleagues around opportunities to trade where routes to market exist through our existing traded services especially where we have identified a definite market need. In public sector we are often good at looking at the things we do well and trying to promote these, whereas in business it is delivering to the market (even if that isn’t always the most exciting part of your work). This can also give resilience to other services and some of the more aspirational projects to actually happen, especially with shrinking budget availability for anything that isn’t statutory.

From a business view we are still full speed ahead with delivering the Essex Design Guide #EDG2018 and the launch event which will be hosting at the Building Centre in London with our partners New London Architecture (NLA). This is an invite only event so those lucky enough to be on the list, make sure you are there! For those who aren’t able to make it, don’t worry there will be a number of roadshow events later next year I will keep you in the loop. In other event news, the much awaited Forests of Essex Conference still has some places left so check it out here and book a place…

The Essex Design Guide, Housing and Art of the Possible…..


It has been an exciting and busy month here in Place with a real focus around our growing Built Environment function especially the design and planning focus.

On Monday I attended the parliamentary launch of The Smith Institutes report on ‘Delivering the renaissance in council-built homes and the rise of local housing companies’ This report captures the rapid rise in local housing companies (LHCs), which has occurred among councils of all types throughout England and has been driven by the need for accelerated housing growth and the need for Local Government to think differently around this issue. Combined with a need to explore alternate delivery models and a commercial mindset this is an exciting area for Local Authorities to be embracing again, although not without challenges. The full report can be found here.

From an Essex perspective I presented an update on the refresh of the Essex Design Guide (EDG) at the Chelmsford Ideas Festival as part of The Art of the Possible Event. This was a really fantastic event with lots of innovation and a great line up of speakers including Future Cities Catapult, Anglia Ruskin University and Countryside. The EDG refresh is a really exciting project that Place Services have been commissioned to deliver; The original design guide published by Essex County Council in 1973 pioneered a context responsive urban design approach to local planning policy guidance, in answer to anonymous suburban sprawl increasingly afflicting the county.. The Essex Design Guide (EDG) as it is now known, is now nationally widespread and internationally recognised and has been regularly updated, the last being in 2005 with an Urban Place Supplement published in 2007.

Essex will undergo significant housing growth over the next 15 – 20 years in order to meet the UK shortfall. This anticipated growth will bring many benefits to communities. However it is critical that this housing growth contributes holistically to the makeup of the county’s natural, historic and built environment the EDG will be critical in helping to safeguard this.

The refreshed guide will be a web based platform and will look to be as innovative as its predecessors, embracing new current themes including; Large settlement planning, locality context in multi-layer local governance, active design principles, health and wellbeing, green infrastructure digital technology, IoT and smart cities.

This is an incredibly exciting project and the platform launch is scheduled for February. You can keep track of progress and events around the EDG here.

In a sign of the growing interest in the refreshed Essex Design Guide, my friend and colleague at Place Services Martin Ivatt has been invited to share a platform with Sir Terry Farrell at next year’s Planning Futures event. The subject the panel will be discussing is ‘The role of design in the delivery of towns, cities and neighbourhoods’ and the purpose of the event will be to explore to what extent best practice design speeds up and enhances delivery.

So all in all it has been an exciting month and more to come in November when my focus will be around the future of planning work we are involved here at Essex and developing our relationships in the #PlanTech arena.

All about change….

It is a changing time for those who work in Local Government and increasingly more innovation and creative thinking is required to sustain quality public services for the future. In my own work within Place Services at Essex County Council I see a huge talent base and skill set which outstrips the private sector in many ways, and we are really working hard to maximise any opportunities to safeguard and add resilience by commercial thinking and a more entrepreneurial spirit. This blog will highlight some of the great work that is going on and give the opportunity to facilitate dialogue, opportunities and innovation happening elsewhere in the sector and beyond. There will also be a guest blog which anyone with an interesting contribution is welcome to embrace…