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STAFFORDSHIRE: 30% surge in planning applications submitted during pandemic

STAFFORDSHIRE: 30% surge in planning applications submitted during pandemic

Photo by Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown.

There has been a surge in planning applications submitted to Stafford Borough Council during the coronavirus pandemic – and community leaders have spoken out about delays and lack of communication.

The council’s planning team has seen the number of applications received increase by 30% since June 2020, a scrutiny committee has been told.

But a report presented to the meeting indicated performance was “good”. As of the end of June the number of applications processed on time were above national targets, although there had been a decrease in the percentage compared to three months earlier.

Councillor Bryan Cross said: “The symbol is ‘good’ which means we’re 10% ahead of the target where we should be. I know some members keep expressing there’s a massive backlog on planning but these figures show our planning department is on the ball and keeping up with it.”

Councillor Gareth Jones said the report gave a “false sense of reality” however. He added: “It is a major part of our business and I don’t think we are serving the public at the moment. I would like to have a feel of what the workload is and how the workload is changing.”

And Councillor Chris Baron said she was still dealing with an application that had been with the authority for almost a year, having been submitted in 2020.

Councillor Andrew Harp said: “Even when it’s gone to professionals to comment on it they’re commenting that we’re way out of kilter. Planning applications are going right up to the limit and then they’re withdrawn for spurious things and have to go back again.

“There’s five months planning applications have been sitting on desks and we have had an increase of 30%. Why haven’t we got more staff in to cover this?

“The professionals are upset about it and people have paid good money. We are supposed to be a professional body and I think we have got to do something about it quickly, because I have umpteen things that are not being covered at all.

“There are enforcement jobs that should have enforcement officers on them but they’re not going out. I have a property near me where they have demolished the property completely and rebuilt it.

“I have been asked to be informed but nobody comes back to you and nobody returns calls. As a business it is appalling.”

Chief executive Tim Clegg told councillors the performance measure was a “rolling two-year snapshot” and the department was facing issues.

He added “We’ve had an increase of a third of the number of applications that Development Control are receiving. That’s a huge increase and a lot of that is as a result of people spending time at home during lockdown, which means there are a lot of individual householder applications where people are completing applications themselves, often not completely filling them in because they are not using agents.

“That has caused issues for us in terms of validating applications and then continuing with them in a timely way. We’ve recognised that issue and had discussions about putting in a number of measures to improve performance to make sure we don’t have too long a delay in planning applications, because it is an important part of our recovery from the pandemic.

“There is an issue for authorities across the country, who are facing the same pressures we have and taking actions to respond to that.

“The pressure that planning officers are being put under is huge. Working from home has made it slightly difficult but we have now brought back staff into the office.

“We have streamlined a number of the processes such as validations, so we have taken the action that you suggest. We have also recruited additional staff, but there is a national shortage of planning officers. I think we are now managing the situation better than we were at first.

“In terms of enforcement officers we have also been able to recruit so we will see an improvement in that situation. People spending a lot more time at home or working from home have brought more complaints about enforcement – they have been noticing what is going on around them.

“We are responding – we aren’t entirely happy with the situation ourselves. And we’re happy to report back on progress.”

Councillor Frances Beatty, cabinet member for economic development and planning, said: “You cannot take out coronavirus as a major factor in causing these problems. I have talked to all the major authorities in Staffordshire and local authorities across other counties and they are all sharing the same problems.

“We’ve had officers working from home with mobile phones with bad connections. They weren’t able to go out on site visits for months on end, they couldn’t get access to A3 maps.

“It’s no different from other organisations that have had massive problems during coronavirus and you can rest assured that everything is being done to process applications as well as possibly can be expected.”

Words:  Kerry Ashdown, Local Democracy Reporter

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