Council planning sell-off backed

A controversial decision to sell off Breckland council's entire planning department has been agreed for a second time after issues with the �40m contract were raised.

A controversial decision to sell off Breckland Council's entire planning department has been agreed for a second time.

Breckland Council says its 15-year 'trail-blazing' deal, agreed again by the cabinet on Tuesday, will cut costs and make money.

The �40m deal will see some 50 staff at the authority transferred to outsourcing firm Capita Symonds, part of the stock market-listed Capita group.

Having already agreed the deal in February, subject to details, concerns raised by members of a working group set up to look at the contract meant the deal had to be looked at again.

Concerns were over how projected savings could be measured and if the council would end up paying for more services if a specification of work Capita would have to do was not comprehensive enough.

There were also worries about the legality of a private company taking planning decisions delegated to them, if any in-house staff would have to be involved in the department and what would happen if the contract was cancelled was also raised.

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Rob Barlow, chief finance officer at Breckland, said the deal could be worth a quarter of a million pounds per year to the council's budget in efficiencies.

He also said there would be "residual savings" because support services provided by the council to its in-house department may no longer be required and that it was "in our hands" to realise that benefit.

He said: "Very much an opportunity worth pursuing. It is not will we be better, it is how much we will be better off by."

Mark Spencer, executive director of Capita Symonds, said Breckland was ahead of others in looking at selling off its planning department and that many others were looking to follow suit.

"I believe we are on the brink of a sea change of how local authorities think about different ways of delivering services," he said.

However, councillor Keith Gilbert said: "Trail-blazing is also a leap in the dark. Many other councils have looked at this and decided not to do it. Our current performance levels in planning are 90pc satisfaction. What improvements are we going to get?" He called for the issue to be deferred so that the council's scrutiny and audit commission of the council could look at it.

However, Tim Leader, deputy chief executive, said the contract was "substantially the same" as it had been before, just "the wording of a small number of important clauses" had been changed.

Discussion over some elements had been ongoing right up to Tuesday's meeting, he conceded, adding that had some "tricky" issues not been resolved he would not have been supporting the deal.

Councillors were also assured the public and members as well as parish councils would be able to have the same access they previous do to planning officers under Capita.

The council has already used private companies Serco and Parkwood Leisure for its waste removal and leisure centres.