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Why Capita staff 450 miles away are deciding Norfolk planning applications

PUBLISHED: 12:42 05 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:38 05 November 2018

Capita staff in offices in Newcastle and Belfast have been handling Breckland planning applications. Pictured is Capita's office in Bournemouth. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Capita staff in offices in Newcastle and Belfast have been handling Breckland planning applications. Pictured is Capita's office in Bournemouth. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Press Association

Staff shortages mean planning decisions affecting local communities in Norfolk are being made by a private firm 450 miles away.

Controversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew UsherControversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew Usher

A controversial deal, which saw Capita take over Breckland Council’s planning department in 2009, has also made a fraction of the promised savings, an investigation can reveal.

The £35-million contract pledged savings of almost £6m, no change in the quality of the service and extra income for the council.

But this newspaper has found:

•Some planning applications are being handled by Capita staff hundreds of miles away

Protestors against a scheme of 50 homes in Mattishall protest with placards outside Breckland Council offices which Capita recommended for approval last year.Protestors against a scheme of 50 homes in Mattishall protest with placards outside Breckland Council offices which Capita recommended for approval last year.

•Parish councils and agents have slammed the firm’s handling of planning matters

•The contract has not made anywhere near the promised savings and has brought in no extra money.

However, Breckland Council has ruled out bringing planning back in-house and said the service was improving.

Almost 90pc of major planning applications are being decided within the target time of 13 weeks, according to the council.

Roger Atterwill from Swanton Morley Parish Council said communities felt Roger Atterwill from Swanton Morley Parish Council said communities felt "abandoned" by Capita not holding some developers to account. Picture: Matthew Usher.

But a failure to recruit staff means applications are being handled by Capita workers, with no local knowledge, more than 400 miles away at the firm’s offices in Belfast and Newcastle.

Agents have also complained about the quality of service from Capita, which made a profit of £80m in the first half of this year.

Chris Parsons, director of Parsons + Whittley Architects in Swaffham, said the service “deteriorated noticeably” from early 2017.

“Applications were not being handled efficiently, communications with agents and applicants was poor, staff turnover was high, officers from out of the district were brought in with little local knowledge and applicants were suffering as a consequence,” he said.

Controversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew UsherControversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew Usher

Agents, including Mr Parsons, Breckland councillors and Capita officers met in October 2017 and further meetings were planned.

But Mr Parsons added: “Unfortunately only one update meeting has been held and many of the problems still exist.”

The contract has been before the council’s overview and scrutiny commission three times since October last year where complaints were made about the time taken to deal with applications and staff turnover.

Roger Atterwill, meanwhile, a parish councillor in Swanton Morley, said residents felt “abandoned” because Capita was not holding developers to account.

Capita, which makes recommendations for planning applications in Breckland, has launched a team to help developers deliver new garden towns. Image: Capita websiteCapita, which makes recommendations for planning applications in Breckland, has launched a team to help developers deliver new garden towns. Image: Capita website

He said taxpayers had to stump up £32,000 in 2016 for a new footpath in the village, which a developer was meant to pay for, because Capita had underestimated the cost of it.

Capita charged the developer £10,000 but Mr Atterwill said it was completed to a “very poor standard”.

“We felt we had to agree (to pay) as it was the only way we would get the footpath completed,” he said.

In response to complaints about holding developers to account, Capita’s boss at Breckland Alex Chrusciak promised last October to better monitor enforcement.

Controversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew UsherControversial planning applications in Breckland, such as this one in Mattishall, led to complaints about Capita. Picture: Matthew Usher

Mr Chrusciak, who left Capita last month, said in January this year that improvements had been made.

But the controversies have continued. Last summer Capita’s officers urged Breckland’s planning committee to approve a 50 new homes in Mattishall.

Capita said the development would bring “significant benefits”, despite a previous application being rejected by a government inspector who described it as “unsustainable”

It led to one councillor, Paul Claussen, calling for Capita to be sacked, while Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said at the time he was starting to share public “suspicions” about the Capita contract being “inappropriate”.

The “suspicions” stem from the fact that Capita also sells its services to developers, meaning in other parts of the country it supports them in planning applications.

In March this year, Capita formed a Garden Towns and Villages Team to “facilitate delivery” of new settlements.

Capita’s involvement supporting garden towns is likely to prove particularly controversial in Breckland where a bid for a new 10,000-home town in the countryside near North Elmham and Bintree provoked uproar in August.

But Breckland said Capita had never had a conflict of interest in an application it dealt with.

“Our planning team apply policies consistently with all applicants,” a spokesman said.

In March, Capita also misinterpreted planning policy which favoured a developer in Dereham, prompting a successful complaint by the town council.

•Council doesn’t know what is has saved

Councillors were encouraged to hand over Breckland’s planning department to Capita in January 2009 with a pledge that it could bank taxpayers between £4m to £5.7m over 15 years.

Council chief finance officer Rob Barlow said at the time the deal was agreed that it would save the council £250,000 a year.

But when asked by this newspaper, Breckland said it had no figures for how much it has saved overall.

However in the first year it delivered half the savings the council hoped for - £123,000. If that was repeated every year of the 15-year contract it would save £1.845m, the council said.

Another carrot for councillors was the hope it would bring in extra money.

The council would get a 1.25pc share of new Capita business or a £50,000 bonus for new contracts Capita signed with other councils.

But no one followed Breckland’s lead.

A council spokesman said: “The council and Capita have been focused on delivering a good service to Breckland and making savings locally, rather than winning new contracts elsewhere.”

•What Breckland and Capita say

When asked if it was happy with the contract, Breckland Council said Capita was meeting performance indicators “routinely”.

“The council and Capita have worked closely together on further improving the service in recent months,” the spokesman said.

On staffing, they said: “The volume of work has gone up significantly within the last few years and we recognise that there have been some challenges around recruitment to meet the growing demand, though this is a national issue.”

A Capita spokesperson said: “Capita has successfully delivered planning services to Breckland Council, including development management, building control, and planning enforcement, for almost 10 years.

“We have robust monitoring measures in place to ensure Capita performs to the high standard that our client expects, and we are performing well against those measures.

“We continue to work closely with the council to ensure we deliver good value for money for the council and for taxpayers.”

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