JD presented the Q1 report and drew out the highlights. JD reported that the year had started strongly with regard to income. There had been a rising trend in applications, and there was an over-recovery being recorded. Land charges, e.g. property searches, were 20% ahead of budget, which had been accelerated due to the Stamp Duty holiday, which had now come to an end. JD stated they would continue to monitor this.
JD noted that all major applications had been determined within timescales, and the minor applications had returned to green status from amber. 90% of the ‘others’ applications had been determined within 8 weeks of receipt by the Council, representing a further increase on the previous quarter. 80% of appeals were dismissed in Q1 against the target of 70%.
JD stated there had been difficulties with validation of planning applications, due to a combination of factors including staff sickness, some COVID related, annual leave and staff being involved in election duties. JB asked for clarification on validation. JD stated this was the first task when the application was received, that all information had been included and the correct fee had been paid. This was purely an administrative function. JD confirmed there was scope to automate some of this, and it was hoped that technology could be used for this in future, which would allow as much time as possible for the officers to review the application.
JD explained that performance validation was not good in Q1, but it didn’t impact the performance figures for planning applications, which was the government’s indicator. Enforcement would continue to be challenging for the remainder of the year due to the backlogs that had built up over lockdown. JD added that the team was experiencing considerable staff movements which were causing difficulties. One of the Enforcement Officer vacancies had been recruited into, but this continued to be a challenging area.
On Land Charges (para 21), JD noted the numbers had exceeded the 10-day target as a consequence of the workload, which was being monitored carefully. JD invited questions from the members.
On the subject of Enforcement, PH asked how many staff were in the team versus the number for planned establishment and asked what the risks were of not enforcing. JD responded the core staff was 6 with an additional temporary officer in the team. The team leader had other responsibilities in other teams. JD referenced the 400 Plan discussed at a previous meeting, which included an assessment of the more serious cases. The enforcement risk varied from case to case. JD stated that if the Council did not take action in 4 or 10 years, then a case would become immune to enforcement action. This did not apply to any cases currently.
GSt returned to the validation issue, noting that some applications occasionally showed as ‘other’ whereas some should be ‘RETs’. GSt stated these should be shown correctly. JD stated he would take this point away for discussion.
MR referred to a recent development issue in Semphill Road, Bennetts End, where 82 objections were raised. The residents found out approval was given in August and stated that the application was put on the August 5th DMC agenda and nobody was informed. MR felt this was a dereliction of duty on the part of certain officers and many of the issues in the 82 objections related specifically to parking. Parking was disregarded, with many garages being lost. MR suggested a process be put in place to ensure that all parties are informed about the DMC.
JD responded he was aware of the issues but stated the current processes did not allow re-notification and added that they would investigate system changes to allow this to take place automatically. JD stated there was no workload to notify people while balancing the needs of meeting the government performance targets. JB noted that this issue repeatedly occurred, with the SP&E Committee raising the issue of members not receiving responses to their questions. JB stated it was important that residents receive a response acknowledging when they submitted information, and that this could not be ignored as a problem caused by staff shortages.
JD agreed this was a difficult area and asked members to speak to the Group Manager, Philip Stanley, or him if members were not receiving updates from officers. JD stated that the lack of acknowledgements could be looked into. All comments received on the website were recorded. JB felt it should be a simple matter to provide an automated reply.
AA said that concerning the application in Semphill Road, he did not accept that the Committee did not consider the parking issues. A lot of work was put into trying to resolve the issue, and that the case had been pulled from the previous meeting. AA did not consider that robots could consider applications, but they could handle the mundane elements. AA felt the onus was on members to keep an eye on the agenda emails for the DMCs. JB responded that when he was involved with applications, and called an item in, he did receive notification on when the item was coming up, which should be routine .
NT pointed out that 3 members of the committee were on the DMC for that item and spent considerable time challenging the officers about the parking arrangements before it was approved. NT stated it was straightforward for a good IT system to register stakeholder interest and then notify them of status changes and asked the administration to consider the requirement in a future update to systems so that those with interest or objections would be notified of each stage in the planning process. JB thanked NT for this contribution.
AE noted that public opinion of DBC was swayed by this sort of public event, so it was important to stop this from happening in future. AE noted that some projects were being brought forward due to lockdown, which should be borne in mind, as there may be a drop in numbers in future. JD concurred, and planning was linked to economic conditions, which was being monitored closely.
PMcD requested a way be found to inform Town Councils when planning applications were being brought before the DMC. AA responded that Parish Council Clerks received notifications the week before the DMC and offered to look into this to see if this could be improved.
JB asked what the criteria were for Category 1 enforcement. JD advised Category 1 referred to listed buildings, where there could be a criminal offence by doing work on a listed building. JB asked if there had to be a complaint from the public first before action was taken. JD confirmed it was a reactionary service. JB asked what would happen after the officer’s visit, specifically regarding communication. JD responded a legal test was considered first as to whether planning permission was needed. Minor cases would result in ‘no further action’ and the complainant would be informed accordingly. Other breaches would result in a letter to those in breach, inviting a planning application.
JD stated there was senior input in the team to make judgments. One outcome would be to go back to the person undertaking the development asking them to remove it. JD confirmed that a pragmatic approach was important before taking formal action, such as an enforcement notice and court action. JB noted that the large backlog had resulted in residents having work done in ignorance, which was unfortunate because these actions could have expensive consequences. JD advised that property owners could do a lot more without needing planning permission, but some people were not aware of this, which led to complaints and calls to the Council.
The report was noted.