The Chair advised that he would be changing the running order of the evening to consider Item 7 first in deference to external attendees.
The Chair returned to this item when Item 7 had concluded and referred to the very well written report included with the agenda and asked Members to address any questions they may have to PStanley.
PStanley briefly introduced the report, advising it sets out to achieve a position where Officers have a manageable case load by focusing on historic cases in manageable chunks and new cases based on the potential harm they may cause.
Cllr Birnie referred to Pg. 17, Para 56, specifically reference to the case load of 600 live cases which are unresolved. In Para 4 on Pg. 1 Cllr Birnie observed that figures show the number of cases resolved in 2014-2020, suggesting that based on these figures there would be 297 unresolved cases. Therefore he was unsure where the 600 figure came from.
PStanley responded that there would have been cases left over from previous years prior to 2014, therefore the cumulative and accurate total is 600.
Cllr Birnie referred to Pg. 12, Para 28 where it details a table of how cases are dealt with. He asked the Officer to explain how you can have minus numbers in that table.
PStanley advised that in this situation, minus numbers are a good thing using the example that in February there were 21 fewer live cases at the end of the month versus the beginning of the month, stating that we would hope to have a minus figure at the end of each month throughout the financial year as it is a subtraction of cases left live. If a figure is red it demonstrates that we have more cases left at end of month, if it is a green figure it represents fewer live cases.
Cllr Harden thanked the Officer for a good and easy to follow report, going on to suggest there is an element of education required in understanding the perception of a member of the public. Cllr Harden noted from the report a change in how members of the public are to contact the service, allowing some control in how to manage a case load and how it comes in. Cllr Harden asked whether technology was being used to best advantage, especially in reducing the workload.
PStanley responded by confirming that education is a priority, explaining that it has been set as one of their priorities for this year. The Officer set out that in terms of a quick resolution point; most of the complaint emails received are where someone has failed to receive a response to an earlier notification of a perceived breach. This generally happens within a 3 month period, so if we can resolve cases more quickly, we will reduce the amount of such emails.
In terms of technology, PStanley advised that there has been investment in the system, including introducing a range of ways in which an Officer’s workload can be made easier. One example is the auto generation of communication once a decision has been reached; for example, if ‘no breach’ is selected for a case that action will auto generate the response to the complainant to reduce manual work load. The Officer added that they will be continually reviewing the system to identify suitable automation and template development. PStanley advised there would also be a benefit from reviewing our website, where we encourage complaints to come to us via the web form, as that provides answers to questions we need when reviewing the complaint.
SWhelan added that there have been conversations about a front facing web page as, based on customer feedback and it would be a great tool to have. Customers would log in and see what stage their enforcement issue had reached within the process.
Cllr Birnie commented that it would be useful for there to be something on the website to help residents understand the process. A monthly report for Members might be useful in the way a weekly report is generated on planning applications.
PStanley referred to Para 69 of the report and confirmed that he would be happy to increase communication with Members.
Cllr Beauchamp thanked the Officer for the comprehensive report, referring to appeals in Para 46 & 47 and commenting that the report refers to 13 appeals, but only 8 have been dealt with. He therefore queried if the other 5 are still pending.
PStanley responded that Para 46 looks at appeals that we have received or we were already processing. Para 47 looks at the appeals that have been decided. It is the case with the Planning Inspectorate that these appeals often have low priority, so we often have to wait a long time following an enforcement letter for the start notice. The number of appeals we receive will therefore not necessarily equal the number we reach a decision on within that year.
Cllr Timmis welcomed this very detailed report and voiced her appreciation of the pressure the service are under. One reference in the report is ‘level of harm’ which would impact the priority attached to a complaint. Cllr Timmis observed that the term ‘harm’ is very subjective and asked; how one would therefore define harm here.
Cllr Timmis also asked if more resources could be considered to mitigate the overwhelming workload.
Cllr Timmis also commented on the importance of acknowledging complaints so the public can see Officers were working on their issues and asked, whether acknowledgements would still take place to reassure the customer.
PStanley responded to each of the questions raised by the Cllr Timmis;
In regards to defining harm level, PStanley confirmed there is no intention to remove the priority level which relates to how quickly we visit a site in the first instance. In cases of TPO’s and listed buildings, these remain priority 1 and we have to attend these within 24 hours. Priority 2 is a visit within 10 days and priority 3 is within 15 days. Once a visit has taken place, a harm level is then assigned. The 5 harm levels and the action we will take based on that harm level are listed in the report.
With regard to resources, PStanley agreed that the report emphasised efficiency measures. There are ways that processes can be changed to streamline the process. But there is a resource issue due to the accumulation of cases over time and in response to this there is an additional Officer post to be introduced on a fixed term basis. There is also the issue that enforcement is a discretionary power; even if there is a breach we are not obliged to take action, so, again, this is a decision based on the level of harm.
SWhelan added that someone within the team had recently handed in their notice so DBC will be working quickly to try and ensure there is not a gap in full time members of staff.
Cllr Birnie referred to the temporary member of staff and asked whether this post will fulfil other functions within planning.
PStanley responded that this is a dedicated Planning Enforcement Officer post.
PStanley referred to the final question raised by Cllr Timmis and the importance of communicating with customers. The quarterly reports do not give Members details of the full scope of work carried out but he is very keen to draft and share a monthly report with Members on these matters. In terms of general updating; there is always a balance to be made between how much time we spend talking to complainants versus how much time we need to get on with the investigation. Cases can be quite lengthy and there is rarely a quick turnaround. We will advise the complainant if we receive a planning application so they can comment, or if we receive a notice. We will update them when we close the case. The difficulty arises during the investigation when customers may want to know what stage we are at. As SWhelan mentioned, if we could achieve better use of our website to signpost them to check progress it would be beneficial.
Cllr Timmis responded that a web system would help where customers can check and know their case has not been forgotten.
Cllr Birnie added that a general background note setting out how a case proceeds which was available on the website would be useful because a member of the public who had a grievance and read that, would be less likely to keep chasing for information.
PStanley advised there is a flow chart that could be pulled out and put more on a front page.
Cllr Silwal asked if site visits were currently on hold.
PStanley responded that site visits are taking place. There has to be a risk assessment prior to any visit and we are still not able to carry out unannounced visits inside site, but we are doing visits that relate to externals, subject to appropriate risk assessments.
Cllr Silwal asked for an explanation of the fast track system and how it is implemented.
PStanley advised this relates to cases of minor breaches that we consider of little or no harm and where it may not be good use of enforcement time to investigate. The enforcement Officers have dedicated time in diaries for these fast track cases where they have a day a week they attend sites and a day a week to write up the outcomes.
Cllr Tindall stated that problems with Building Control have arisen in the past and to resolve this we joined Hertfordshire Authorities Group. He asked whether, given that this is probably an issue for most planning authorities, we have given consideration to speaking to neighbouring authorities about a joint approach.
SWhelan advised that she sits on a group with the heads of development management across Hertfordshire and there has been a lot of comparing of resources etc. and how each authority has coped with the 30% increase in planning applications which impacts on enforcement. What tends to happen is that the planning application function takes up the majority amount of time and the function of enforcement varies dramatically across Hertfordshire. This is demonstrated by the number of notices issued across different authorities. Because this is a discretionary function, not all authorities will be looking at this equally.
Cllr Tindall responded to the point of enforcement being discretionary and asked whether, given government intendeds to review planning, we are likely to see changes where the discretionary function becomes mandatory.
SWhelan advised that is not a question that she can answer, adding that she needs to manage expectations and the priority over the coming years is the 400 plan. Any consideration of digital solutions or reviews of any wider help and support would likely occur in the next financial year. It is not possible to look at everything at this time.
Cllr Stevens commented that the 400 plan is a good management tool and this is a good report. Referring to the type of reports Members might want, he expressed a wish to avoid creating work, stating that the most meaningful reports will be those that tell us that formal action has been entered into.
PStanley advised that the quarterly performance report issued for DMC fulfils that function and asked; whether Members would prefer that report monthly.
Cllr Birnie suggested this is something that could be discussed between the Officers and Portfolio Holder, adding that he would be happy to participate in those discussions and feed back to the committee.
Cllr Beauchamp referred to members of the public having access to the progress of their case, commenting that he believes the existing planning portal gives access to those things and asked, if members of the public were given their application number, should that be where they are directed?
PStanley responded that complainants are provided with an enforcement number and we can signpost them to the website. But we need to make sure that the website has the level of progress reporting that the customer would find useful.
The Chair thanked the Officers for attending and presenting such a comprehensive report, which was noted by Members.