What legacy will the rush to build houses leave for the next generation?

Ian Briggs

Many rural and semi-rural localities are struggling to cope with the increasing number of applications for potential new housing developments, a proportion of which seem to defy logic and sound planning sense when matched against local knowledge and established patterns of socialisation. On one hand it makes sense to seek stimulation to a fragile and unpredictable economy through relaxing planning mechanisms and encouraging developers to build and meet the known housing gap. But on the other hand some decisions to allow the building of new homes on land and in localities that is less than ideal will certainly bring further complex problems to address in the future.

Although the rate of new build properties between 2009 and 2010 was at the lowest for half a century, the pace has increased markedly since 2012 with some localities reporting initial approaches for development increasing in some rural localities to a rate of more than one a month. Inevitably it is the localities that are offering the highest return for developers that are attracting the most attention. Building houses quickly, and then selling them quickly is a certain way of both stimulating the economy as well as offering good news for some existing home owners and those new to the market, plus those who have to move for employment reasons. The free availability of data that points to ‘post code’ areas that attract the swiftest sales and not always the highest transaction price is encouraging landowners and developers to seek approvals in places that might not always be the most logical and appropriate to build in but offer the greatest and swiftest return on investment by the builder and landowner.

As planning authorities are slowly getting to grips with the requirement to identify land appropriate for development under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and putting forward their proposals to the Planning Inspectorate for approval, the gap remains open for developers to seek approvals in places where despite local opposition developers are likely to gain approval for development. The trickle of disapproving comments from government suggesting that local councils are slow to respond ring a little hollow when the practical difficulties of securing a workable plan to identify priority localities is explored in detail. Even for relatively small councils, especially in rural areas, the cost and time needed to openly consult with local communities in identifying local priorities for the release of land for development is debilitating, time consuming and in all cases very expensive at a time when money is tight.

Whilst this search for an agreeable and workable plan is going on many local authorities are struggling to cope with the massive increase in proposals currently being presented, in the case of one council alone Planning Committees have had to be scheduled weekly rather than monthly to cope with the volume of applications. On top of this is the reluctance to dismiss applications that might be less than ideal when faced with mounting legal bills to defend against appeals is emptying budgets at an alarming rate.

Few could deny the need for a faster pace in development, indeed many communities are willing to absorb a managed level of new housing to keep villages and small towns sustainable but the longer term implications of some ‘on stream’ developments are concerning.

A development that brings 85 new houses into an established rural or semi-rural community might at one level be seen as no big issue, especially with some urban and semi urban localities facing development proposals that bring in new estates with hundreds of new houses, but 85 new dwellings can be an increase of up to 25% of the local housing numbers and the potential impact this can bring with it is hard to forecast accurately. Some studies suggest that in rural areas new inward migrants from urban areas can take over ten years to be fully integrated into community life and in other cases there is a suggestion that new migrants into rural settings fail to see existing community facilities as being appropriate for their needs and bring demands for new community facilities that are attached exclusively to their new development properties. Additional new facilities in new development areas can be often sought that are only within the scope of the new development and not orientated towards wider integration into existing communities. “This is our play area and not yours” syndrome!

This is further complicated by the tendency for new housing developments in rural and semi-rural areas to perform the function of being dormitories for larger neighbouring urban centres increasing pressures on roads and public transport. Acting as dormitories they are bringing with them different social and economic patterns that are in direct contrast to established patterns of life within rural localities. Many planners together with developers make the assumption that local community assets are sustained by increased development but some evidence suggests the opposite is true. Longer travelling times to work and schools restrict the access to many local social activities – again, a study of one locality that is expanding rapidly demonstrates that younger people see activities and social assets such as youth and sports clubs are easier accessed closer to the place of education than the place of residence. Socialisation patterns for longer distance commuters suggest that a greater benefit can be seen in accessing facilities close to the place of work as being better and more convenient than accessing sports and social activities close to home – destroying the argument that rapid increases in housing development make local assets and facilities more sustainable.

This can be addressed to some extent by taking a more sympathetic and systematic approach to the ‘housing mix’ in new developments. Recently we have seen some moderately large scale development that is aimed solely at the commuter where there is a high level of standardisation in the housing mix with little or nothing to attract the actively retired or the home based worker, despite evidence that many local people are actively seeking to downsize or shift their economic patterns yet wish to stay firmly within a community that they feel very much part of. On top of this the ONS data now suggests that over 13million people who are in employment are homeworkers and of these 65% are male, challenging the stereotype that homeworkers are women and second wage earners. That some developers are lacking in imagination to offer development plans that have a housing mix that fits with local economic patterns and needs is a matter of some concern that will take some time to work through and new policies and planning practices will have to be developed that cope with having the wrong sort of housing in the wrong place. These are very difficult issues to construct effective challenges by local communities to planning applications coming forward as they are ‘in the future issues’ and often contradict data that is presented by applicants to support their applications at a time when planners and councillors on planning committees are rushed off their feet under the incessant onslaught of applications.

As landscape and visual appearance issues become weaker in challenging planning applications in rural areas, trying to determine negative social impact is also problematic. There might be a clever sleight of hand here that is very much to the advantage of developers – to determine negative social impact prior to development is a bit like trying to guess exactly what type of people will migrate into newly developed areas. However it seems that some evidence exists that challenges claims for positive social impact of new development could be correspondingly weak as well.

All this means that studies of newly developed areas in rural communities is likely to become a hot topic for research and understanding in years to come, the intended benefits of development will undoubtedly have short and medium term economic benefits to the wider economy but we might be storing up even larger and more expensive demands upon the public purse in years to come when we face the challenge of some of the social and environmental challenges that emerge downstream of new house building currently taking place.

This is less of ‘not in my backyard’ as many communities welcome new development – as long as it is well managed, sympathetic to local conditions and affords mechanisms for sound and proper integration into well-established communities and not something that grafts urban living onto rural lifestyles – it is more a call to think about the longer term implications for development in rural communities. If we don’t we could face years of putting right some of the decisions taking place now.

briggsIan Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Cinderella has been at the ball for more than a century and no one has noticed her!

Ian Briggs

Local government has struggled with the concept of localism for far longer than most of us might think. It has not just been the clarion call of localism from the Coalition Government since 2010 and the subsequence Localism Act that posed some pretty serious questions about the structure of our local democratic processes. The issue of connectivity between the citizen and the ‘agent of the state’ has been under academic scrutiny for a long time.

It might come as a surprise that for many town and parish councils, 2014 marks a century or more of continuous (very) local government but this seems to be passing many by. Quite a few are in fact older and came into being after the fondly remembered 1894 Local Government Act. For many town and parish councils this was a formality that was based on the feudal system from as early as the 8th century, creating local administrative units that, it could be argued, present one of the longest histories of a system of local administration to be found anywhere in the world.

So Cinderella has been amongst us for a while now, quietly getting on with the allotments, rubbish bins and dog poo; but as she has been kept so far below stairs, few of us have ever really noticed her presence.

Indeed, today it is not what we know about town and parish councils that is interesting but (with respect to Donald Rumsfeld and his known unknowns) it is perhaps what we don’t know that is interesting and might be a matter of some concern to those of us who take our local democracy seriously.

So can anyone out there answer the following questions?

  1. How many town and parish councils are there and how many are active?

There is data which suggests that we have quite a few in England and Wales – only a few in Wales. Looking at the data from the National Audit Office we can see that the gross precept levied by town and parish councils is around £400m, not an inconsiderable sum. These data are aggregated from what higher tier billing councils levy on communities, but this total hides the fact that a proportion of local councils below the higher tier are moribund and some act in a somewhat unofficial capacity. We also don’t know the range of budgets across local council size and scope. Rather worrying as no real research has been undertaken in this area since 1981!

  1. How many town and parish councillors do we have?

Again, it is near impossible to arrive at anything like an accurate figure. We know that in some cases we have data from where elections take place but many town and parish councillors enter office without facing an election. Uncontested elections are often a feature of government at this level and it is worth reflecting that even though those who do sit on such councils are exposed to the same level of legal responsibility as those who are elected to principal councils, many sneak through without facing the ballot box.

There is also some slightly worrying anecdotal evidence that some well-meaning local citizens sit alongside parish and town councillors as they have local knowledge and enthusiasm for local issues, seemingly all but formal parish and town councillors. But it might be best not to dwell too much on this. To complicate matters further we might be surprised to find that sitting on our local town or parish council are formally elected councillors from higher tier councils and indeed in some parts of the country ‘triple hatted’ councillors can be found – sitting on the county, district and paris council. Great if you have the energy and commitment to do so, but there are instances where they could be representing different political parties or more usually be politically aligned and supported at one level and by independent at another.

  1. How do town and parish councils set, agree and monitor priorities for spending?

Good question – as successive approaches to monitoring and controlling the spending mechanisms for local government have come and gone in recent years, Cinderella has managed to escape much in the way of control mechanisms for her role as the most local form of democratic unit. Thankfully most town and parish councils are working to some kind of plan and although the purse strings are tighter than perhaps they have ever been, most town and parish councils are keeping the wolf from the door – just.

A key responsibility of all town and parish councils is to hold an annual parish meeting. The intention here is to engage the local community in such a way as to set the agenda for the forthcoming financial year and help the parish council to focus on the priorities that local communities wish to see addressed. In some case this clearly works well, but again we have no global data or broad understanding of how this works. In some places where higher tier or principal councils are well engaged with this process it does have some meaning and purpose, but many parish councils often find that only a handful of people turn up, sometimes out of a sense of duty or even as an opportunity to tell the parish council how poorly the NHS is run or their objection to some foreign policy activity that central government is undertaking (and don’t laugh, as the anecdotal evidence strongly supports this).

  1. What do higher tier and principal councils actually think about town and parish councils?

Another question that is near impossible to answer beyond the clear frustration that many seem to feel about their mere existence. In fairness, a growing number of county and district councils are coming around to thinking that better connectivity with parish councils is an essential way forward. As councils are rethinking where their assets lie they find that where parishes has worked hard to maintain local open spaces, play areas and other facilities they can play a really significant role in supporting policies in healthy lifestyles, wellbeing and even education.

  1. What capacity do town and parish councils have to deal with an expanding agenda and increasing levels of public expectation?

Now perhaps this is the killer question. Are we seeing a forced interdependence forming between principal councils and town and parish councils or is there real mileage in rethinking Cinderella and giving her a makeover? To characterise all parish councils as amateurish is really to do them a disservice and is patently wrong. NALC, the National Association of Local Councils, may not be the most prominent of bodies but in recent years it has done sterling work in supporting town and parish councils through changing times, and has done more than most appreciate in professionalising and lifting the status of the parish clerk from that of a part time administrator to one of a key professional who handles complexity and ensures that parish councillors can give their best.

Despite this, we can see that many parish councils are struggling to absorb a wide range of challenges – from playing their part in ensuring that large scale residential developments are in keeping with local needs and expectations to developing new forms of local services to fill gaps left by unavoidable reductions in services from county and district councils.

So where does this leave us? To ensure that we understand exactly what the new 21st century Cinderella will need to wear to the ball, we need to be clear about what the supporting research agenda should contain. This autumn NALC and INLOGOV, together with the University of Gloucestershire, will be inviting a number of key players together to begin to map out the gap of the last thirty years of Cinderella being locked below the stairs.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Under what conditions are decisions best made? Football managers and the public sector

Ian Briggs

I am not much of a football follower, but I am becoming increasingly bemused by the fascination for premiership clubs in becoming so closely associated with their managers. You can hardly fail to notice that the headlines stories on the back pages of newspapers concentrate a great deal on the relative merits of the approaches taken by the current crop of managers. Am I alone in thinking that they get more attention now than the players?

Their very personalities are so great that they now appear to be at least as important as the club itself. Success or failure on the pitch is often put down to the decisions of the manager and less on the relative performance of the players. Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United and Jose Mourinho becoming so much intertwined with Chelsea has got me thinking about our assumption that consensual decision-making is an absolute necessity within the public services – when compared to the unilateral decisions made by football club managers that are viewed as key factors in match results.

The committee system that we have lived within in local government for so many years, albeit often under a charismatic chairperson, is the very embodiment of consensual decision-making. A problem is placed within the political arena and through open discussion and challenge a decision is arrived at that is seen to be within some level of agreement and indeed consensus to be an appropriate means of doing business. For quite some time we have concentrated upon inter-agency partnership working where bringing together expertise from a range of organisations implies that the benefits of consensual decision-making are a necessity to cope with the complexity of delivering public services.

So, whilst on the one hand we have an acceptance of bringing together a group to concentrate on an issue of public interest either within management teams, committees or a partnership, on the other hand we are experimenting with non-consensual decision-making of certain prominent leaders in public life. Witness the debate over the relative merits of executive Mayors in local government (at best an unresolved argument) and the singular independent role of Police and Crime Commissioners as examples.

When things go wrong we may want to have a ‘head to roll’; if a football club is not winning then the supporters call for the sacking of the manager – even in some cases hiring aeroplanes to fly over the football ground with messages flapping from their tails to that effect. How different is this to occasional lurid tabloid newspaper headlines calling for the removal of a senior manager or politician if there is perceived poor performance in a public sector organisation. In some cases they could perhaps do the honourable thin and fall on their swords if the consequence of a bad decision (even if it is a decision they have merely endorsed rather than made themselves) has challenging or inappropriate and unintended consequences. All this leads to a gradual shift towards the public needing to have a strong, singular individual making decisions – eschewing consensus.

So under what conditions are decisions best made? In open, consensual arenas (even if committees often operate behind closed doors) or through a singular, individual focal point around a decision as in the case of football club managers?

Since Rittel and Webber formally described wicked problems in the early 1970s, we have debated what they mean for those who are in public management and leadership and are facing issues where there is little agreement over the exact nature of the problem. This has opened up much debate on the benefit of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to focus their attention upon complex problems – and let’s face it, the list of these things seems to be growing! Is it because we see more and more ‘wicked’ issues and we have a relative lack of success in solving them that we are now becoming drawn towards a less consensual form of decision-making?

In his highly provocative book If Mayors Rules the World, Benjamin R. Barber offers the view that large nation-states with complex democratic consensual decision-making processes are poorly placed to deal with the complex and wicked issues faced today. If we were to place decision-making and leadership into the hands of one individual then the scope for clear direction setting and making brave and original decisions may increase and therefore be favourable to placing decisions in the hands of committees and stakeholder groups which often lead to stasis, mass avoidance and confusion. The subtext here is that we need to place a higher value on charismatic and visionary leadership; however, have not some of the most dangerous individuals in history conformed to this typology? As I am no student of football neither am I a student of history, but when Europe was a collection of small nation and city states this did seem to lead to war and violent competition!

To complicate matters a little further we might have degrees of consensuality in decision-making. Last week after the second reading of the hybrid bill for HS2, Parliament endorse the decision to press ahead with the project. Having all party agreement is important on a problem that has wicked characteristics such as this one. The next stage could be to ‘sell’ the decision to the public and the wider stakeholder community on the basis that it is a better decision because it has this degree of consensus. HS2 could be seen as valid in the public eye as it has this right level of political and stakeholder consensus, while it we had a football club style manager making the decision alone on HS2 there would be uproar.

So where does this leave us? Are we exploring the limits of consensual decision-making? The advent of new governance arrangements in health is perhaps a good current example of where through bringing together groups of stakeholders an assumption is made that the consensual approach to decision-making is most appropriate. However, the dynamics of bringing together multiple parties has disadvantages as well as assumed benefits. Successive studies suggest that when things get complicated (for this read ‘wicked’) and more and more perspectives and opinions are introduced into groups, then the more likely it is that an incidence of ‘multiple-uncertainty’ will occur. In short, there are too many holes in the process of deciding for any potential solution to fall into and be subsequently forgotten.

To avoid this inefficiency, decisions could be placed in the hands of one responsible and accountable person. The football team has not lost because the specialist coach who deals with the players in attacking roles has not done their job properly, nor is it because the players on the opposing side were better on the day. It is because the one individual at the top of the pecking order has failed to apply the correct strategy and not motivated the players well enough to win. In the post-match review, conducted usually in the full glare of the media spotlight, it is the manager who gets it in the neck because his (and remember it usually is a ‘his’) decisions were not deployed effectively during the game. On the specific issue of gender, it is worth noting that there are multiple studies which suggest that most women will be more effective than men in complex situation as they display a preference for consensual decision-making.

So, should we be concerned about whether decisions are best made in consensual or non-consensual arenas? Are we right to assume that the most effective way of leading through wicked decision is through strong individualised leadership that downplays where other stakeholders have differing ideas and preferences for solutions? In the end it may not matter and ultimately be down purely to contingency and circumstances – in some circumstances we must take others with us and in differing circumstances we need to have stand out leadership that prospers or fails on the basis that they deploy non-consensual decision-making and have the robustness and capacity to live with the public ridicule and criticism that this can bring. But we do seem to have conflicting approaches: local democracy was founded upon an add mixture of the checks and balances of consensual devision-making, yet we seem to be seeking new heroes and heroines. The committee was the place for shared and distributed responsibility, but remember that even a committee has a chairperson – their role might not be to just endorse the decision the majority comes to but also to create the conditions that are required to make a good decision.

I am a little shocked that as someone who has only a passing interest in football at best, I can now rattle off the names of managers and the clubs they lead. If top class football is a place where non-consensual decision-making is being played out with some success then we should step back and think about our approaches to open consensual decision-making in the world of public services. Would we be better served if we did have less of this and more of the singular, individualist decision-making here as well? My discomfort with this though of the potential benefits of the hero and heroine decision-makers who dismiss consensual mechanisms is equally by my bemusement at why I am interested in football after years of boredom with the game. But it seems that the football managers of today are at least asking questions of our understanding of the best approaches to decision-making in complex situation. Fancy a new job, Sir Alex?


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Who is in control of the sandbags?

Philip Whiteman and Ian Briggs

The recent news that the Minister for the Environment, Owen Patterson, has visited flood torn Somerset and the Environment Agency, has had a bit of a tough time in the media. It has started to open up a few interesting questions and issues around who is actually accountable and who is responsible for flood response. Undoubtedly facing persistent flooding problems is deeply distressing for those affected and it is far from unreasonable to expect the response from the State to be swift, appropriate and well managed.

But who should respond and who has a say over what the local priorities are is perhaps a more complex question to answer. On further investigation it would appear that our system of local public administration has a few dark corners that are somewhat enlightening to explore.

One slightly dark corner that the media seems to have paid little attention to is the Local ‘Internal Drainage Board’ (IDB). What may come as a surprise to many, especially if you do not operate in a particularly high risk area, is that these IDBs are actually part of the complex firmament of democratically elected local bodies.

Internal Drainage Boards as local public organisations are specifically charged by legislation to supervise matters of water level management.  Whilst current powers are determined by the Land Drainage Acts of 1991 and its precursor of 1930, the antecedents of these curious bodies can be traced back to Henry II in 1297.   Not surprisingly, their boundaries are not coterminous with principal local authorities, but instead with water courses.

The 121 IDBs are distributed across the low lying areas of England and Wales, such as the Somerset Levels, Fens or Romney Marshes. Board members are elected by the IDB ratepayers and may sit alongside appointees.  Herein lies another oddity: each elector, usually an agricultural land holder, is awarded a number of votes related to the size of land holding or occupation – something rather reminiscent of voting rights pre- the 1832 Great Reform Act!  Whilst local authority members may sit as appointees, it is not remarkable to comment that control of IDBs holds little interest to political parties.

The very existence of the IDBs offers some interesting avenues to explore. One question that presents itself is around Government’s intention to respect that it is often the local community that holds local knowledge and solutions to problems existing within communities. Now, one can see that the Environment Agency itself has a few problems to deal with – it has not escaped media attention that the Agency is facing cuts at a time when the headline news is demonstrating that many local people are living with persistent flooding. Clearly one significant advantage of a large scale Agency is that it learns lessons from previous practice and can then make judgments as to the best way of dealing with problems. It can lay down standard operating processes and procedures and is in a position to balance a wide range of competing issues such as general environmental and ecological sustainability, whilst at the same time responding to social need.

However, if the flooding problems in the Somerset levels are allegedly a direct product of the failure to dredge rivers (and here we are not offering any opinion on that matter), should the decision be one that is taken locally or should it be one that conforms to a standard operating process? We have on one hand a body open to public scrutiny that is made up of local people and elected representatives who are resourced through a local precept taxation system and a national body that is answerable to citizens through national government. In this type of situation, very complex inter relationships develop between the principals and their agents!  This complexity is furthered by the addition of principal councils and DEFRA – who also have an interest in flood prevention policy and measures.

If, as we have seen through the introduction of locally elected Police and Crime Commissioners, government has an appetite for bringing public institutions closer to the people, then it may seem more than a little strange that in some of our most sensitive localities this argument over prioritisation is between Ministers, local people and a government agency. Perhaps we should look to promote a more visible role for the Local Drainage Board.

They are clearly important to local people in high risk areas, but with increasing pressure on local authorities to absorb ever increasing numbers of new houses and reports that new homes are being constructed on flood risk zones, we may need to think more deeply about how we manage this tension between control at a local level and the advantages of having a national response to such emergencies.


Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments.


briggsIan Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Local democracy at the sharp end: diary from a Parish Council

Ian Briggs

It starts in the autumn of 2013. The Secretary of State knocks back the latest submission of the Core Strategy from the District Council – more homes needed please. Suddenly, the Parish Council becomes inundated with requests for meetings from developers – the story here being that this rural village has the postcode where houses change hands on the market the fastest for miles around, and for the highest possible price.

By November 2013, eight potential housing developments are highlighted and the community becomes ‘punch drunk’ with consultations for housing developments. Plans are submitted to the District Council but mysteriously they do not appear on the website.

Early January 2014, the Parish Council calls a community meeting to discuss development, the fact that HS2 Ltd are now proposing permanent road closures, and the Environmenet Agency is looking at proposals for an advanced form of ‘fracking’ – underground coal gasification for the area.

It is hardly surprising that those local residents present at the meeting are up in arms and demanding answers. Council Council member is present at meeting but rather quiet and makes sharp exit at the close. No District Ward councillor present and no apologies sent.

The following morning, the members of the Parish Council are given sight of resignation letter from District Councillor.

Week two, January 2014. District Council meets to agree new proposed core strategy. Shock – areas within the Parish Council highlighted to absorb thousands of houses – sets out case that it is at the periphery of the District so should be little trouble – wonder why ward councillor resigns?

Still no sign on the District Council website of plans submitted by developers in December 2013. Then, find they have put them on the website but believe they relate to a totally different parish – oops!

Letter sent to the Leader of the District Council requesting urgent meeting – no acknowledgment, no reply after ten working days. Leader of Council is in London for extended period according to Council staff. Wonder what on earth he is up to and who he is talking to?

All of the above is a trust story. But the important issue here is that this is set against a backdrop of ‘localism’ – if the intention is to give greater powers to local communities then we need to look closely at the decision-making mechanisms that we have to work with. There are questions arising as to how we are failing to integrate decision-making across different levels of local democracy.

A fundamental  tenant of any democracy is being clear and open as to where decisions are made. If all this sounds as though it is an attack on the District Council in question, it is not meant to be so – the Council is in the same position as most others. It has made deep and significant cuts to its operations and is now faced with making decisions that are expensive in terms of time and associated managerial costs.

In amongst all of this are the public. They are open to persuasion from a local media that is keen to jump upon any news story that could sound as though the Council is failing, and given that event well educated and sensible members of the public are poorly informed of the mechanisms of local democratic decision-making, it is no wonder that they turn to the most available and accessible form of local representation – the Parish Council.

Next diary entries to start soon…..


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

The paradoxical nature of being successful

Ian Briggs

The world of social science can be an odd place at times. Much is quite rightly being made of the impact of severe reductions in public spending, but when social scientists look at the levels of satisfaction with public services, many see the general quality of services remaining high.

This seeming anomaly can seem even more confusing when we start to look at the tactical moves made by public institutions and bodies to place themselves within a market-based approach to service provision. For those in the private sector demand stimulation is a core activity. Seeking growth, market penetration and improving competitiveness are very much at the heart of sound management and leadership. But for the public sector the issue of demand brings with it issues of access criteria, rationing and strategies o deflect demand away from the most pressurised services.

The rise of strategic commissioning has been for many the key mechanism to deal with market-based approaches to service provision – this brings with it tactics that seek to make public services more attractive to market-based provision, stimulating provision rather than stimulating demand. Indeed, there are growing numbers of examples where through taking a market-based approach to provision, citizens are readily accepting that services are commissioned by public bodies but actually provided by private and third sector organisations.

Consequently, if satisfaction and contentment remain high (though it has to be accepted that is not in any way universal), why should we worry?

Having happy and content consumers for a commercial organisation is indeed something to be very highly valued and the same should be true for our public services. However, there is a sting in the tail. There are an increasing number of examples of what we can refer to as ‘needs acceleration’ – if you satisfy a demand for a good or a service then over time it brings with it an appetite for yet more. This is a phenomena that is well understood in many consumer markets; once you have provided a good product the time will come when it needs replacing and the consumer expectation is that it will bring with it an advancement in quality and increased utility.

For local councillors, the expenditure of monies on local improvements can bring with it both satisfaction and a feeling that if an improvement is made in one area then another must be close behind. This is ‘needs acceleration’ – if you can make one thing better then why can you not deal with another perceived problem? For many in local communities the history of planning gain through section 106 agreements often leads to a paradox – this is now being keenly felt with severe budget reductions.

An example of this is where developers have brought improved local facilities such as play areas with housing developments, over time the asset investment cost is overtaken by revenue costs to keep the facilities in good order. Over ten years a play area that cost £60k to build and install can bring with it equal levels of cost to ensure that it is maintained and operated to an acceptable standard. This impact of ongoing revenue costs over capital costs is an issue that is at times challenging to get across to communities who seek improvements in civic amenities but remain unaware of the longer term implications of meeting revenue expenditure obligations.

The same can be said for where we have schools that are judged to be of high calibre. This brings with it the perceived advantage of higher property values and greater pressure for development. A local school with strong OFSTEAD reports is attractive for a developer seeking to build new properties on adjacent land. For the developer the housing mix is determined by national regulation though it is clearly in the interests of the developer to build houses that are saleable and attractive to potential customers who seek to have a place in a good school for their children. Given that any new development brings with it obligations under section 106 or the CIL, the local community has the right to expect that local facilities and infrastructure improvements will follow – though, again, the actual benefit may be relatively short term. Although the open spaces and free public access facilities that come with new housing development are to be welcome and indeed seen as a necessity, over time the costs of maintaining such improvements will have to be met from somewhere. This cost can and does often fall on the local community, increasing pressure on expenditure in future years, at a level that can be difficult to calculate.

This, however, cannot be an argument for mediocrity. We need development; any community that does not seek to improve is failing in its civic duty – though we may be facing too many problems in years to come by taking a short term view of civic performance. For many councillors, the pressure to create physical improvements to a place is huge; though if we concentrate too much on the immediate future at the expense of the longer term we can see that some of our public services will fall into neglect, especially as the cost of maintaining those services and facilities increases over time.

A question that often arises in our teaching and research on the issue of strategic commissioning is what it is exactly that make strategic commissioning strategic. The answer may lie in the balancing of meeting immediate need with longer term vision – too often commissioners are faced with commissioning for the here and now and fail to see that we have to make all provision sustainable; poor short term commissioning may meet immediate needs but fail to take into account where service need will be in years to come. Most councils are willing to admit that they struggle with the very idea of having a commissioning strategic – they can see the need for it but commissioning for future needs is something that can be driven out as today’s agenda is about meeting known needs today.

Commercial organisations have at their fingertips different strategies that are perhaps unavailable to us – they can offer differentiated products and services where premium products and services can be delivered alongside standard ones. The premium charges cover the cost of research and development and the cost of the premium in the first place.

What remains is that whilst there may be growing evidence that some people are generally satisfied with what is provided in a period of austerity and service diminution, the actual demand for services does not actually decrease. We offer an increasing number of potential substitutes and alternatives, but where we make improvements or update facilities and services within the mind of the public it can and does bring an expectation of more.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.