On a scale from zero to three stars the Audit Commission inspection team gave the service a 'poor' zero star rating. It has struggled for several years, and still does not provide value for money whilst having difficulty providing even a basic service. However there are signs of recent improvement.
'The service does have some strengths, such as increasing the supply of housing and building sustainable communities. However these are heavily outweighed by weaknesses in the service that have gone unaddressed for a number of years. Building control and development control, the two services where customers have the most contact with the council, both provide a poor quality of service to customers. Officers are stretched to provide even a basic service and management of the service is weak.'
The inspectors found:
* The council's planning committee is not fully effective
* The service has a poor track record in involving the public in service improvement
* It provides a limited range of planning advice to the public, which is not easy to access
* The service is not providing good value for money. Its cost is high relative to the quality and range of services provided
Its prospects for improvement are uncertain since:
* Its political and managerial leadership continues to be weak, with officers and councillors frequently caught up in seemingly intractable problems
* Key areas of the service lack technical and professional capacity as well as leadership
* It has a weak track record in delivering improvement
However, recent developments show some early signs of improvement, such as better response to telephone enquiries and some signs of town centre regeneration. There has also been significant investment in the last three years and the council is making progress in some areas in reorganising and recruiting staff.
To help the service improve, inspectors recommended that the council should:
* Ensure councillors comply with accepted good practice relating to standards of conduct and training in planning matters
* Develop urgently, with partners, a clear vision for the borough and west Northamptonshire
* Increase professional and management capacity within the service
* Sharpen its focus on customers to ensure the service is responsive to the needs of the people of Northampton
Copies of the report are available on the Audit Commission website at www.audit-commission.gov.uk/reports
Council response to Audit Commission report on planning
The following is a joint statement from the three political group leaders of Northampton BC on the planning inspection:
'In a routine inspection, the Audit Commission has identified several areas for improvement in the planning service at Northampton BC. A number of the issues date back many years and were identified by the council's own assessment of the service made prior to the Audit Commission's inspection.
'We welcome the commission's report and are already implementing many of their recommendations. Examples of what we are doing include:
--We are implementing an ongoing strategic action plan focused wholly on meeting the needs of customers.
--Extensive consultation is underway between Northampton BC and its partners to develop a renewed vision for the town.
--A development plan is already in place that addresses the training needs of councillors sitting on the planning committee.
--We are running a national recruitment campaign to build the professional and managerial capacity of the service to meet customer needs.
'It is important for us to point out that this is a routine service inspection and one of many that happen all the time. The findings of the Audit Commission will help us improve and we are glad that they have acknowledged the work we are undertaking to deliver sustainable improvement.'