At a time where councils are receiving less money in real terms than ever before, the combination of COVID recovery alongside and decarbonisation pressures represents a perfect storm – and local authorities are buckling under such financial constraints. What does this mean for planning and delivering projects under their remit? Pippa Gibbs Joubert explores the issue and looks at ways that projects can mitigate impacts on timelines and budgets.
Until 2018, only one local authority had ever issued a notice of insolvency – known as a Section 114 notice – and that was in the year 2000. Since 2018, after years of austerity-related grant funding cuts to the tune of 40%, 12 local authorities have now had to submit to this bleak outlook. Plenty more have been issued with warnings and are taking action to make cuts to avoid the same outcome.
Although poor spending decisions and governance certainly have a part to play, even relatively well-managed authorities are now at risk of going bust. Alongside the headlines of equal pay wars and botched IT systems, a survey by the Local Government Information Unit attributed over half of these financial meltdowns to COVID-related duties putting pressure on children’s services, adult social care and home-to-school transport.
At the halfway point to our target date on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there’s also enormous pressure on councils to deliver against net zero emissions targets. While the much-hailed ‘green economy’ could eventually unlock new jobs, skills and opportunities, it first requires an enormous amount of upfront investment – both in terms of capital projects and the small but ubiquitous shifts that together will fundamentally change the fabric of our society.
But whatever the reason, a Section 114 notice can spell bad news for developers trying to progress major projects under the remit of these authorities. Following the notice, councils have just 21 days to balance the books and come up with a new spending plan. In the process they will have to make significant cuts to meet whatever budget they have. Redundancies, pull-backs from spending commitments and a halt in planned investments are all likely.
As key stakeholders and consultees for major projects (NSIPs) and TWAOs, and decision-makers for TCPAs and LDOs, their involvement is vital and projects depend on the timely provision of information, documents and decisions if projects are to meet their timelines and budgets. Historically, councils already struggle to meet these deadlines – but with fewer staff, more churn and dwindling expertise, projects should expect further delays and a reduced ability to engage on technical terms.
Major projects ordinarily spell a financial windfall for the areas where they are delivered. Inward investment, jobs for local people and the direct or associated provision of infrastructure and amenities all represent boosts to a local economy. Decarbonisation-focused capital projects can also benefit local authorities’ net zero ambitions – so it’s in their interests to engage, cooperate and deliver. But with major short-term financial pressures and often with scarce strategic oversight, this does not necessarily mean they have the means or the will to do so. The good news is that projects can make this much easier for them. Here’s how:
- Be proactive: you might not hear back from your contact the first, or even second time you contact them. Keep at it – and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or seek input from other contacts you have there. One email does not equal a job completed.
- Be clear: high staff turnover and limited resourcing mean handovers can be incomplete, or even non-existent. You may be dealing with someone who has no background to your project, so start from the beginning in terms of what you need. Outline deadlines, processes, and options for how to engage, just like you would with the public.
- Offer help: a dearth of experience can mean you’re working with someone significantly more junior than you’re used to, and they might lack the expertise they need to jump in. A phone call to talk them through the project history and the issue at hand can go a long way. Viewed positively, you could see this as an opportunity to build relationships. After all, talented juniors do not necessarily remain in these posts for long. You never know – you may be talking to the future strategy director, Leader or CEO.
- Political briefings: If planning officers are stretched, an opportunity may exist to get closer to those responsible for decision-making if your project is going through a TCPA, LDO or TWAO process. Depending on the individual council’s rules around briefing, you may be able to offer full council briefings, or reach out to those sitting on the relevant Planning Committee. This is a chance to get the benefits of the project across either to many people, or tactically tailor your message to the needs of individual stakeholders, and the communities they represent. When doing so, it’s crucial to research your audience’s needs and priorities, and to target your engagement in a way that de-escalates vocal opposition and maximises support and advocacy. Your engagement consultants can advise you on a strategy for this and provide insight, messaging and eye-catching materials to help land your message effectively.
- Accessible, attractive materials: It might sound like a minor point, but when a local authority is struggling for resource and capacity, making it easy to review your proposals makes it easy for them to say ‘yes’ to you. We would always recommend that political briefings are succinct, accessible and attractive, given that even councilors who sit on planning committees are not necessarily experienced or trained in planning. But extending this approach to planning documents makes information easier to absorb, and questions easier to understand. Remember: planning officers are just people trying to do an (increasingly difficult) job. Making it easier can pay real dividends.
If you’d like to discuss this topic, or to find out how Copper can help you engage with local authorities, please contact Pippa Gibbs-Joubert: firstname.lastname@example.org