This is one of a series of case studies which showcases best practice in council Resource Management Act consent processing performance.
The Western Bay of Plenty is one of the fastest growing areas in New Zealand. Its current population of just over 42,000 people is expected to reach more than 60,000 by 2026. Highly dependent on horticulture, the district’s environment, soils and climate are also a magnet for people wanting a relaxed outdoor lifestyle.
The resulting development pressures create a significant and complex workload for the Western Bay of Plenty District Council (WBoPDC); around 500 applications for subdivision and land-use consent are received each year. The challenge lies in ensuring that employment, business and lifestyle opportunities are all catered for without compromising each other’s interests, and, importantly, that proposals reflect community values and complement the surrounding environment.
Any council with such a complex workload needs to consistently operate as a high performer and encourage the highest standards of application and design from its developers. For WBoPDC, this has been a continuous path of change and improvements.
In 2004, the Council embarked on a journey to strengthen both its own performance and that of its applicants. The adoption of the ‘Western Bay Way’ signalled a dedicated programme for continuous improvement, implemented through a series of winning initiatives. This has resulted in the creation of a positive culture and a turnaround in the way the Council is regarded by its consent customers.
The Western Bay Way: “we know what we do, we do what we say”.
WBoPDC’s journey began with the efforts of the management team and the diagnosis of performance challenges.
Up until 2004, WBoPDC was structured to process consents in a manner similar to many local authorities throughout New Zealand. Consents and engineering staff turnover was identified as a problem, as was the need to improve overall statutory performance. An external audit on the Council’s performance confirmed the opportunities senior management had identified to improve the whole consent process. One of the key areas for improvement was internal service management and integration. This was subsequently echoed in a report on the Council’s consenting function prepared by the Ministry for the Environment as part of its “Targeted Assistance Programme”.
Silver Award serves as a
validation of business
These reports were catalysts for instigating an action plan for improvement, a challenge taken up by the previous Regulatory Manager, and now Group Manager for Customer Services, Steve Hill. This work was further supported from mid-2005 with the arrival of the Consents Manager, Chris Watt.
Their desire to address these challenges and turn around the Council’s underperformance was enhanced when the entire organisation committed to the Business Excellence (Baldridge) Programme. The tables have now turned to the extent that, in 2009, WBoPDC’s first application to Baldridge received a Silver Award for New Zealand Business Excellence. The journey continues, with the ongoing challenge for WBoPDC to keep capitalising on this success and stay at the top of its game.
WBoPDC’s road to improvement has been championed by its leadership. They have sought to embed a culture of excellence through innovative systems, greater accountability, better communication (both internally and externally), staff development and greater visibility of the key performance measures. A number of initiatives have been put in place in pursuit of these aims.
Since 2004, the Consents Manager, consent planners, engineers, consent technicians (planning administration staff) and compliance officers meet every morning at 8.45am to discuss, allocate and share advice about the most recently lodged applications. This is known as the Central Processing Unit or CPU.
With a planning team comprising a senior planner and three consent planners, workload allocation is strategically managed. Chris is provided with a caseload report from each consent planner before the meeting, allowing allocation based on experience, skill sets and capacity. In addition, these reports provide Chris with a daily snapshot of the working days remaining on each application, which is cross-referenced with the consent engineer’s caseload report, to ensure statutory performance is monitored daily.
As part of their preparation for the meeting, the consent technicians print all relevant District Plan maps and supporting ‘hazard’ and property information plans and take along all consent files relating to the same sites. At the meeting, checklists are used to ensure all matters are comprehensively addressed and recorded, and any technical referrals and inputs are identified.
After each meeting, and led by the consent planners’ vetting of the applications, consents technicians must either formally accept the application and send out an acknowledgment letter or, if an application is considered incomplete, generate a letter to the applicant stating why his or her application has been returned. Key performance indicators specify that any actions arising from such meetings must be completed within 24 hours.
The CPU – daily work allocation
and planning meeting.
These daily allocation and planning meetings provide an opportunity for staff to work together to identify early on any information gaps, issues and risks, particularly as the complexity of applications has increased over time. The meetings have increased efficiencies at the front end of the process, improved time management and reduced procrastination. The meeting helps ensure consistency in approach and foster a collective sense among all those involved in the consent process.
The CPU process also includes planning input to building consent applications, which ensures an integrated approach to the approval process for building and planning applications.
Staff at WBoPDC are full of praise for the CPU process and the step-by-step assistance it provides less experienced officers. Tau Manihera, an intermediate consents planner, describes it as “an awesome process, it’s transparent, inclusive and eliminates delays”.
Following the successful introduction of the CPU allocation and planning meetings, Steve made a decision to split the technical planning role from administration functions. This has enabled the consent planners to dedicate more time to the technical elements of their role and give priority to meeting timeframes, and has avoided the need for extra reporting staff.
The planning administration staff deal not only with day-to-day administrative tasks, but also process simple ‘auto’ or ‘quick’ consents, which usually involve a technical performance standard infringement. They also undertake a quality assurance ‘triple check’ once a decision has been issued. This task allocation has provided the administrative staff with a sense of empowerment and ownership in the wider consent process, and a path to career development within a wider administrative team. In dealing directly with customers over planning related enquiries in the ‘duty planner’ role, they have also become more comfortable in their knowledge and application of the District Plan.
WBoPDC has established a Technical Support Group (TSG) as a forum to discuss and resolve practice and policy issues. TSG meetings involve consent and policy planners and their managers, and can involve other council staff (such as engineers or compliance staff). Consultants or applicants’ agents can also request to attend to discuss a particular issue. The topic, issue and actions arising from this forum are recorded in a register which all staff can access electronically. The register is kept up to date and provides an accessible record to agreed approaches. It ensures that consistent advice is provided to customers on a regular basis and avoids the need to revisit interpretation matters down the track.
This integrated culture extends beyond the team involved in processing consent applications. A weekly full-team meeting led by Chris and involving consent planners, policy planners, engineers and the administration team (building and planning) ensures staff are aware of wider Council business and specific performance matters. The regularity and inclusive nature of these meetings fosters effective communication.
Closing the loop between consent and policy teams is another aim at WBoPDC. Policy planners undertake duty planner responsibilities alongside their colleagues in consents and administration. Chris says, “this provides a good mechanism to ensure both planning arms are aware of issues on the ground and is a useful feedback loop for future plan development prospects”. As well, formal opportunities are provided for consent planners to be involved in District Plan development (this occurred with the recent Proposed District Plan), and to participate in plan change appeal work.
Chris has all the information he requires at his fingertips for every aspect of WBoPDC’s consent processing function, including staff performance and productivity. In addition to the daily workload reports, at the end of each month key performance measures are reported on, and made available to all staff through the Council’s intranet. This transparent form of reporting ensures relevant staff are accountable for meeting timeframes and are fully aware of the Council’s performance objectives.
Chris has all the information
he requires at his finger tips.
The visibility of reporting has also improved relationships with other departments. In the past, compliance with internal referral timeframes had been an issue, but now the responsibility for this part of the consent process is no longer obscured.
Every quarter, 20 randomly selected subdivision and land-use consents are independently audited by Council’s corporate development analysts. As the audit ensures that key dates are recorded correctly, it provides an assurance that reliable data can be assembled for accurate performance reporting.
WBoPDC has always encouraged paths for career progression and succession planning and the opportunity for staff to develop professionally is an area the Consents Manager takes seriously. Chris is always looking for new challenges for his staff and ensures they are sufficiently supported in the process. As an example of this, Chris and Tau have worked together to create a path for Tau to progress from intermediate to senior level. Previously, graduate planning staff have developed through to consent planners. Chris says, “there is a willingness and motivation amongst planning staff to perform to a high standard and to reach their career goals, and, as a result, there is flexibility around the planning team’s structure so there is an opportunity for people to grow”. This initiative has had a positive impact on planning staff’s turnover statistics, with the team’s newest member being on board for more than 2 years.
WBoPDC has in place formal and informal initiatives to encourage active stakeholder engagement. Every two months an e-newsletter is sent to planning consultants, surveyors and other agents on procedural matters and general Council business.
On an informal basis, WBoPDC staff are happy to meet with stakeholders to address topical issues and may hold practice forums when the need arises. For example, the Group Manager for Customer Services and Consents Manager met directly with a regular agent to resolve an issue associated with substandard applications, and advised the customer that the Council expected applicants to raise their game and lodge quality applications.
WBoPDC appreciates that Council, developers and consultants involved in the development process have to work together. Good development outcomes will not only be achieved by district plan rules or consent conditions. This stance underlies the Council’s ‘package of plans’ approach, an initiative that allows developers to engage early with Council’s senior staff to discuss possible subdivisions or potential land-use developments, which may be no more than a hand drawn sketch on a serviette.
In place since 2007, the initiative aims to provide parties still at the concept stage with a clear understanding of the Council’s preferences or concerns. They can then consider options and develop proposals with some degree of confidence about the Council’s likely stance. It also allows the Council to challenge the way subdivisions and developments have occurred in the past and stimulate and encourage good design outcomes.
Many other councils also hold pre-application meetings, but often at the point where proposals are well advanced and discussion is more about ensuring adequate scoping of environmental effects assessments. Rather, ‘package of plans’ meetings involve a discussion about ‘blue sky’ ideas, options and constraints that may or may not result in preparing applications for specific proposals.
Accordingly, WBoPDC provides this as a free service.
The meetings are attended by the Consents Manager and senior urban design, policy and engineering staff, who set aside 1.5 hours on the last Tuesday of every month to meet with potential future applicants and/or consultants.
As with any process there is room for continuous improvement and WBoPDC is always looking at opportunities to improve its game. Three are discussed below.
WBoPDC has mastered the art of manually integrating processes across its business but, to improve efficiencies even further, this needs to be supported by electronic system integration. While this poses a considerable financial investment for a Council the size of WBOPDC, an e-business project is being implemented that will fully optimise the functionality of the existing Origen (Ozone) software system, enable on-line transactions, result in slicker e-services and enable the consent processes to become entirely electronic from end to end. WBoPDC has established an internal working group, and has met other local authority Origen users.
Regular surveying of customers found some instances of inconsistency in the level of advice being provided by staff acting as duty planners. To some extent, this issue has been addressed by establishing the Technical Support Group referred to earlier, along with dedicated training sessions for duty planners, run by the Consents Manager.
Another challenge for WBoPDC has been improving its notified consent timeframes. Until recently, WBoPDC was processing only 50 per cent of its notified applications within statutory timeframes, compared to 100 per cent achieved for non-notified applications. A number of practical solutions were found, including a review of delegations and greater flexibility in the use of independent and Council commissioners. The Council also considered whether to accept paying a discount (under the new discount policy) or to provide additional hearings (previously limited to two fixed dates per month). Council made a decision to set aside an additional day for hearings each month and now achieves 100 per cent compliance with statutory performance on notified applications.
The Council’s own monitoring and reporting provides evidence that adopting the ‘Western Bay Way’ has made a significant difference to the performance of its consents function.
From 2004 on, there has a dramatic improvement in the Council’s ability to process consents in a timely manner (see figures 1 and 2).
A satisfaction survey of the local community is undertaken every two years. Feedback from the most recent survey suggests overall community satisfaction with the consent team’s service continued to increase. Those surveyed witnessed “a strong emphasis on the Council lifting its game in this area”. WBoPDC considers this validates the amount of effort within the organisation to promote and raise awareness of the Council’s new business approach.
Since 2005, there has been a significant change in the culture at WBoPDC, and the previous high staff turnover, symptomatic of many local authorities, no longer occurs. The past five years have seen few staff movements, with those leaving generally going overseas or moving on for career development opportunities. The current team has been in place for more than two years, making stability a key success factor. A number of other factors have helped contribute to this positive change, namely the initiatives put in place to address poor performance, the Business Excellence project which has driven a culture of change from the top, and the opportunities provided to staff for career progression.
Everyone working for WBoPDC buys into the ‘Western Bay Way’, and this positive change in culture is obvious in staff retention, general work satisfaction and the Council’s ability to meet its statutory timeframes.
The bar graph shows the volume of non-notified land-use resource consent applications lodged within a six month period from December 2003 to June 2010. The graph also shows, for the same time period, the percentage of non-notified land use consent applications approved and for those applications lodged, the percentage that were processed (approved or declined) within statutory timeframes. There is a general trend for the non-notified land use consents lodged from December 2005, with the exception of December 2008 and June 2009, to have been processed 100 per cent within statutory timeframes. For the applications lodged from December 2003 to June 2010 the majority of these were approved. There is no obvious trend in the volume of non-notified land-use consents lodged during December 2003 to June 2010. The volume of applications lodged varies between 100 and 380.
The bar graph shows the volume of non-notified subdivision resource consent applications lodged within a six month period from December 2003 to June 2010. The graph also shows, for the same time period, the percentage of non-notified land-use consent applications approved and for those applications lodged, the percentage that were processed (approved or declined) within statutory timeframes. There is a general trend for non-notified subdivision consents lodged from December 2005, with the exception of June 2006 and December 2008 to have been processed 100 per cent within statutory timeframes. There is no obvious trend in the volume of consents lodged during December 2003 and June 2010. The volume of applications lodged varies between 150 and 500, with a sudden spike in applications lodged in December 2009 (700). Apart from in December 2009, the majority of non-notified subdivision consent applications lodged were approved.
The Council’s initiatives and strive for improvement are recognised and supported by its customers.
Reuben Hansen, a planner from MTEC, has witnessed significant improvement over the past few years in WBoPDC’s processes. Rueben says, “WBoPDC works to achieve a middle ground solution, which benefits all parties”. Reuben observes that, “consent staff are always helpful, provide consistent advice and seek to enable a good outcome”. He suggests that the Council’s formula is a direct result of management and senior staff driving and supporting a continual path of improvement.
Richard Coles, a planner from Boffa Miskell, lodges 5–10 large or complex applications with WBoPDC each year. He has been dealing with WBoPDC for more than 10 years. Like Reuben, Richard considers WBoPDC’s improvement can be attributed to the personal commitment and drive of its managers. Richard has witnessed priority being given to meeting statutory timeframes. He also considers that, “WBoPDC consent planners have made a conscious effort to be more helpful in providing advice and in taking a solution-focused approach”. Richard thinks that the regular e-newsletter is a great initiative. “It is a valuable way to be kept informed of procedural matters.” He has also participated in stakeholder forums. Richard considers that the analysis and judgement of consent planners has improved, that applications are allocated appropriately, and that good support networks are in place for less experienced staff.
Western Bay of Plenty District Council is an example of a council which has turned performance challenges into an opportunity to implement a successful programme of improvement initiatives.
The Council’s success can be attributed to:
For information on the Council’s resource consent process go to
For information on the Council’s brochures for the public go to
Steven Hill – Group Manager
email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07 579 6688
Chris Watt – Consents Manager
email email@example.com or phone 07 579 6518
For other Resource Consent Processing: Showcasing Best Practice case studies go to
Published in February 2011 by the Ministry for the Environment, Manatū Mō Te Taiao
Publication number: INFO 578
Last updated: 2 March 2011