Agenda item

Planning, Development and Regeneration performance Q4 report


J.Doe went through the report and he was happy to take questions.

Cllr Stevens picked up on point 21 of the report and referred to completions, he did not think it adequately reflected how good the performance was against the core strategy, and  it seemed to have adopted 1023 as the future target. The core strategy gave them a target of 430 dpa and the 674 reported was ahead of that. He would like to see how performance was against the original future plan, there was a dispute in terms of the 1023 number, the more realistic number that they were talking about should be about 500 a year and to publish a report which suggest that they were way under what the government wanted them to build was leaving the door wide open for people to challenge them on developments. Whilst their 5 year land supply was not good enough to meet the target the 5 year supply at 430 a year was.

J.Doe responded that the figures were completions as they were and that is what the market along with developers, housing association and the council were doing themselves in delivering each year. What they need to have a look at was the development trajectory over a number of years. There would be some strong years where they would have done more than the 670 and sometimes less and it would be the average that needed to be looked at. They should be able to get some monitoring figures out to the committee in due course to show those trends effectively. The point on land supply was a very critical one because that was an important point when it came to looking at planning appeals and whether appeals should be allowed on the basis of housing supply and whether they like it or not as a council the 1023 figure was what was used by the government simply because that was what their standard methodology generated as they objectively assessed the housing needs of the borough and that was what they used as the housing delivery test. What was important was that Officers continued to track the actual completion rate and when they come on to the local plan in due course they would revisit the issue of the housing numbers in Dacorum.

Cllr Birne asked if the 670 figure included all completions

J.Doe confirmed that the 670 figure included all completions, private and council and those under permitted development.

Cllr Birnie said that if they were doing comparisons over many years, he would like to see against those figures the number of approvals they had issued.

JDoe would pick up information with the strategic planning team, and would get more information and circulate

A.P J.Doe to circulate approvals numbers for several years to members.

Cllr Beauchamp asked about the improvement plan to reduce the enforcement caseloads from 600 to 400, this meant that they could still after 12 months have over 400 cases outstanding and was there a plan to bring them down

JDoe said what it meant was that there would be an amount of work at any one time, if they could not get that work in progress level down to around 400 it would be a much more manageable level which would enable them to prioritise more important cases where they may have to serve notices or which may include prosecutions. They have bought in an officer to clear the backlog and a system had been implemented to triage new cases to come to a rapid conclusion as to whether or not an actual breech had occurred and whether or not there was a case to investigate.

Cllr Beauchamp said that it was an area of great concern as 400 was a large number and he hoped the triage system was not just a means of batting away the lesser cases.

J.Doe said absolutely not. This was about sharpening the performance management within the team and getting to important cases quicker.

Cllr Timmis said that they had a lot of enforcement issues in her ward that were not being dealt with, leading  to developers exploiting the situation by having buildings built without planning permission or using other means to get around planning permission. The team was working really hard but had too much on their plate and It showed with 600 waiting and she felt the department were not able to function as they should due to not having enough staff. She had spent a lot of time not being able to get through to planning. She started with emails and then phone calls and she had issues from residents with valid claims that were not being listened to.

She also referred to site visits, stating that during the pandemic officers refused to visit sites even though most of them were outside with no risks and she felt it was unreasonable not to visit such sites.

J.Doe said it had been a very difficult year and site visits were harder in the first 6 months of the pandemic, they could not make appointments for enforcement cases as they needed to carry them out without prior notice and so they could not guarantee the safety of a site with Covid. With planning applications they were able to get applicants to send in pictures and if they needed different pictures they could ask for them but that was someone asking for something from the council rather than the council trying to enforce against a breach of controls. He said that members could go to him if there were issues in getting hold of the planning officer. He would monitor the plans to manage the cases and a plan to get through the backlog.

Cllr Birnie agreed it had been an issue in not getting responses and they had been advised that officers do not always have a phone. However, when emails were sent officers often still did not respond. As planning was one of the most frequently used interfaces with residents, it was really important for officers to improve their response rates.

Cllr Timmis said she knew that they were under pressure but it was not a good thing if they do not have the people to do this resulting in many residents calling her for advice and making it impossible to do her job satisfactorily.

J.Doe said that that he would take that back to officers and instruct them to prioritise member emails to ensure they can do their job.

Cllr Beauchamp asked if it would be appropriate to make a referral to cabinet that one additional resource was required for the planning department.

Cllr Harden said he would be reluctant to do that as any department head could come to scrutiny to make referrals to cabinet.

Cllr Birnie agreed with Cllr Harden and said that they have just taken on another member of the team whom they must allow to bed in and reduce the pressure of work.

Cllr Stevens said that there were proposals coming through regarding how they would manage the workflow through the department. Also, the changes to planning consent may reduce the workload.

Cllr Rogers said that he agreed with Cllr Stevens about the changes that would be going into the planning department. However perhaps they should be ahead of the game in this area and perhaps some extra people were needed in the particular area which was the greatest time consuming for a councillor; namely, trying to deal with planning applications and complaints from residents about them. He would support an increase in head count.

He also referred to a comment made earlier in terms of objectively assessed needs. He asked if J.Doe thought that government used the same formula across the country for assessing the need or the demand and did he feel that DBC had been sanctioned for over achieving previous targets in the past, because this year’s completions of 674 over a previous target of 450 meant DBC had over achieved by 50%. Perhaps this explained why government had increased the target by another 52% to 1023 and was this viable.

J.Doe said that he thought that the housing needs question would be covered in the next meeting where the local plan would be discussed, but the same formula was used across the country. In response to Cllr Stevens, there would be some technical work which took place with the local planning consultations which would explain it all and he would provide some links for members. In terms of whether it was need or demand it was need, it was a measure of need as opposed to demand which was very much a market factor, it was trying to look at what demographic trends were coming through, what was driving the need as opposed to demands which was more about the number of people out there needing or being able to access housing at any one time, however he would suggest exercising caution over the figures as they had a good year last year bearing in mind completions were down in Q1 during the pandemic but then picked up, ending on 674 which was quite a bit above the 430 target in the core strategy. He said that the 430was adopted by the council in 2013 and that was 20% below their objectively assessed need at the time and the planning inspector looked at their core strategy and said they should bring forward an early review of the plan because they were under by 20%. Reverting to the point about the actual need figure itself, before the government bought in the new methodology local areas would set their own need figures, so pre 2017 officers had done some collaborative work with nearby councils in the SW Herts area and they had generated a figure of 756 dwellings per annum. Using the latest demographic information they now have a new figure with the government methodology of 1023. There were a number of ways to look at these figures and he would not rely on the 430 figure as being reliable because things had changed and the government had made it very clear about its promise of around 300,000 homes per annum and he thought that this was a fixed policy and pressure on councils. How to distribute that around the country would be another matter.

J.Doe referred to Cllr Stevens’ point regarding the planning bill that would be coming forward and the direction of travel indicated by the white paper that had come out last year. When the details are available, officers will organise an information session for members. However, Cllr Stevens was correct in that the approach to how they look at planning applications may be very different in the future and the government seemed to be promoting the use of design codes, so a code would be defined for a particular area or areas in the borough and if a developer met the criteria in the code then outline planning permission would effectively be automatic. Of course there were more permitted development rights coming out all the time and with all of these factors planning applications were changing quite radically.

Finally, he referred to the point made about the enforcement staffing and noted the comments made. Budget setting for the forthcoming financial year would soon be due and Cllr Anderson and he would take the comments away and consider how they could be represented in the budget setting proposals.

Cllr Taylor wanted to follow up on the point made about residents contacting Members when they could not get hold of planning. Like many members he published his phone number on the website and he did not want to be answering planning enquiries when residents could not get hold of the planning department. He would like J.Doe to think about how that could be managed and come back with proposals at a future meeting.

Cllr Birnie referred to paragraph 7 and the recovery of fees and that they had a reduction of shortfall of 10.5% and wanted to know if that was for Q4 or was it an annual figure.

J.Doe said this was annual.

Report was noted


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