Why growing numbers of council planning teams are isolating while they tackle application backlogs.
Last month a Hampshire council’s planning department decided to ignore nearly all customer queries for two weeks as officers focused on tackling an application backlog. It follows similar action by a Dorset authority at the end of last year. More over-stretched council planning teams are following suit. So Waverley’s problems are being re-enacted all over the country. Backlog of applications at ‘ Your Waverley disappearing.
Not being able to get through to officers to check progress on applications is a perennial gripe among those who liaise regularly with planning departments. This silent treatment is often unexplained but being incommunicado was official policy for the staff handling development management decisions at Portsmouth City Council last month, where water pollution issues and staff shortages, compounded by the impact of Covid-19, forced its planning department to cocoon itself from normal day-to-day external interactions for two weeks.
During April, staff dealing with applications were not contactable for day-to-day matters. This meant all pre-application discussions, meetings, phone calls, emails, site visits and other day-to-day activities were heavily restricted. The planning service also stopped taking new customer enquiries.
The south coast planning department’s decision to pull up the drawbridge was designed to allow its planners to focus on clearing a backlog of applications, which at its peak had built up to nearly 400 last year. The backlog figure referred to the number of applications that the council would be unable to process in a “reasonable period” based on its typical performance of 25 per week, said Ian Maguire, assistant, Portsmouth’s director of planning and economic regeneration.
The council had cleared some of this backlog, which had been fuelled by more stringent rules designed to prevent runoff of nitrates into the Solent river, by bringing in assistance from outsourcing firm Terraquest. However, Maguire said this move had not proved as effective as hoped, prompting last month’s delivery drive.
Before embarking on its behind-closed-doors blitz, officers worked out which applications could be dealt with as essentially desk top exercises, including those where any essential engagement activity and site visits had already taken place. The “vast majority” of the cases processed during the backlog blitz were household applications, said Maguire, which would tend to be delegated to officers for decision-making anyway.
By the time normal service resumed the council had made decisions on 250 applications and resolved around 50 pre-application matters. These 250 decisions marked a 500 per cent increase on Portsmouth’s 25-per-week standard and reduced the number of outstanding cases closer to the volume that the authority would expect to have on hand at any one point in time.
The ban on contacts with applicants and their agents was not total, simple queries were allowed if they could be dealt with in a “few hours” and would help an application’s progress. However, these interactions stopped short of anything that would require fresh public consultation and were usually responses to existing objections that could be resolved speedily.
The exercise proved to be very effective, not having to carry on with normal responsive services enabled the council to focus on delivering decisions rather than wider issues. The lack of external distraction also meant that staff could concentrate on dealing with queries from other department members, further speeding up the decisions process.
Everyone was focused on one output and was able to work much more swiftly on that basis, and being able to hand over bunches of similar applications to an officer helped speed up the process.
Peter Ford, principal consultant at the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service, said Portsmouth’s move could be the “tip of the iceberg” with many hard-pressed council planning teams considering taking similar steps. Only answering phones between certain hours is already “very common”, he said.
Paul Barnard, chair of the planning working group at local authority body the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), recalled how his own authority at Plymouth reintroduced answer phones at one point so that officers could concentrate on dealing with applications.
According to Barnard, Portsmouth made the right call, even if it meant that other elements of providing a “quality” planning service had to be put on hold. “The primary legal duty is to determine planning applications – everything else plays second fiddle to that in terms of development management,” he said. “You want to provide a quality service in the round but getting back on general inquiries is ultimately not as significant as dealing with planning applications.
However, closing down channels of communication can only be a “stop-gap solution”, he added: “This is a symptom of a desperate lack of resources and staff capacity but it is clearly not a long term solution.”
Portsmouth council’s spokesman said while not wishing to “promote or encourage” catch up exercises, it would not be surprised if they become more common.
“It works as an emergency measure compared to other things that you have to do as planning authority like bringing in temps,” he said.
But there may be reputational downsides for councils that shut themselves off from contact even temporarily, :
“For politicians, it doesn’t look very good that officers are not going to return calls for a given number of weeks.”
Mike Kiely, chairman of the local authority body of the Planning Officers Society, agreed this problem of “failure demand” is a big one in planning departments.