Agenda item

Annual Planning Enforcement Report


PStanley presented the report, noting that specific enforcement cases could be looked at in more detail outside of the meeting. The previous 12 months have seen a number of challenges and successes and PStanley referred to issues within the service with the amount of live cases that remain on their books. Staffing over the last 12 months has been challenging and the principle planning enforcement officer and planning enforcement positions have now been filled. On performance, PStanley noted a downward trend in live enforcement case numbers, which peaked at 620 and are now at around 400, which is due to a declining number of cases being received as well as the work being put in with the 400 Plan with dedicated focus on geographic areas and case types.


PStanley noted the errors under part 3, stating that the intention was to present 1st June 2022 to 31st May 2023 and members were instead pointed to the data contained within the tables. PStanley advised that the key messages within the section remain true with further closures and live cases coming down. Around 25% of cases are closed due to establishing there was no breach to start with, just over 25% are closed as the team has concluded that it would not be expedient to take further action as the case is a minor breach. Around 45% of cases are closed due to the actions of the team, such as securing planning permission or the offender voluntarily resolving the issue.


PStanley referred to the focus on dealing with the most harmful cases and serving of enforcement notices with 19 enforcement notices issued in the first 6 months of this year, compared to 10 in the last year, though this also results in greater appeal work, which requires further resourcing. PStanley advised that this then means there is reduced resource to attend sites regarding new cases and therefore the Principal Planning Enforcement Officer is triaging cases to assess the level of harm and the requirement for an urgent site visit. PStanley explained that the focus is on cases that are the most harmful and that are in danger of becoming immune through the 4- or 10-year rule.


PStanley next looked at the KPIs, noting that this was raised at the last meeting, and also referred to the suggested KPIs from local government. Looking ahead, PStanley explained that they are now looking at the 300 Plan to create a more sustainable caseload for the team and that various measures are being worked on to achieve this. There are upcoming challenges in terms of biodiversity net gain and the expectation that local planning authority enforcement teams will be required to monitor the agreements. PStanley summarised that the team is performing well, that there are cases where they have not acted as timely or completely as they would like, but that the team is working well in terms of driving down live case numbers and taking formal action.


Cllr Pringle acknowledged the need to prioritise cases and noted her concern on how this applied in the public interest. Cllr Pringle commented on concerns regarding retention and development of staff, noting that there is central government funding available for apprenticeships and recommended they look at this to help with both bringing people into the industry and handle the volume of work by having trainees or apprentices filter the work for officers.


PStanley first looked at expediency, noting that they can't create set rules for this as it changes according to the circumstances on the ground and therefore an individual assessment is required. PStanley explained that for breaches they will either invite a retrospective planning application, which can enable a consultation process with the area, or they can serve a formal enforcement notice. PStanley advised that if they refuse to submit a planning application then they will either service an enforcement notice or the file is closed as there are no further options.


Regarding recruitment, PStanley confirmed that they are looking at the areas suggested by Cllr Pringle and that they have had some planning trainees who spent their first 6 weeks with the planning enforcement team, and this will be explored further.


Cllr Santamaria asked what the planning backlog was like pre-Covid and what the realistic final target is. PStanley advised that they receive approximately 500 enforcement cases per year and that it can take years for a case to be resolved. Cases were increasing by approximately 40 cases per year for around 7-8 years and a 250 live caseload for the current team would be the target to enable each officer to have a manageable caseload to undertake first visits and formal action when required.


Cllr Timmis commented that the report does not include getting more resources for the department. Cllr Timmis noted issues around retaining and recruiting staff and suggested that planning enforcement officers being paid less than planning officers should be addressed. Cllr Timmis added that further resources are required to ensure that the team can cope with the current burden of work, particularly given the number of appeals. The Chair suggested that this be discussed with the portfolio holder outside of the meeting and that they come back to the Committee on what can be done regarding resources.


PStanley responded to the query regarding retention, noting that planning officers and planning enforcement officers have received their letter regarding the market forces supplement. This budget was approved by the Council and is being awarded to officers. The Chair queried if this is ongoing or for one year. PStanley advised that all market forces supplements are subject to review and must be reviewed at least every two years.


The Chair agreed that further information in response to Cllr Timmis' comments should be brought back in future. JDoe advised that they have put into the budget a request for a further permanent officer for planning enforcement, though this will be subject to member scrutiny.


Cllr Birnie congratulated PStanley and his team, noting that the team is performing better than any other council in Hertfordshire in terms of enforcement, as stated in paragraph 48 of the report.


Cllr Birnie referred to table 3 in the report and queried the difference between adverts and agent's boards, noting that they are a form of advertising. Cllr Birnie also asked what an S215 notice is. Cllr Birnie suggested that it would be helpful if the officer could address what are considered the most egregious forms of behaviour that require the team's attention, suggesting that some attention should be paid to the amount of people who suffer from the breach.


Regarding the difference between estate agent boards and adverts, PStanley advised that in 2022 no estate agent board cases were created, which is likely to be because they were given the advert suffix and that they have differentiated between them in the past. On S215, PStanley explained that this is part of the Town and Country Planning Act that deals with a lack of proper maintenance of land or buildings and action can be taken with a S215 notice. On which activities the planning enforcement team should focus on, PStanley confirmed that there is a priority system within the local enforcement plan that divides development into three levels of priority with the top priority being listed buildings and protected trees as well as irreversible damage to areas of outstanding beauty.


The Chair asked if the local enforcement plan could be shared with the Committee. PStanley confirmed that this is available to view on the Council's website.


Cllr Anderson noted the drop in planning applications in the past 3-4 weeks and asked if there is an opportunity for some case officers to be put on secondment to assist with planning enforcement cases. Cllr Anderson commented that it had emerged at a meeting last year that there could be an opportunity for setting up courses at the college to get students interested in planning and suggested that there is a short window of opportunity to get cases down and also train students.


SWhelan advised that she had spoken to the LGA regarding the cohort of 30 apprenticeships and that they would be keen to put themselves forward for this. This will close on 5th September and SWhelan confirmed she would be liaising with the management team on how to take this forward given previous success with 4 officers coming through the apprenticeship levy.


SWhelan commented that she had spoken to Oaklands, West Herts College and University of Hertfordshire following the Hemel Place discussion regarding whether they could have a local town planning course and help get town planners. In taking this forward, the challenge is that University of Hertfordshire is Royal Town Planning Institute accredited and that they are not viable to be able to look at opening another town planning course. SWhelan advised that instead they are focusing on pushing town planning more broadly and this is being picked up by national bodies.


In response to the comment regarding diverting resources and seconding officers, SWhelan advised that the Habitat Regulation Assessment work has distracted a lot of planning officer capacity in terms of legal agreements and has absorbed capacity.


Cllr Birnie acknowledged the pressure that the team is under and asked if they should look to conduct early site visits in all instances to help avoid fewer problems in future and therefore reduce officers' work. PStanley advised that this is where an early site visit is beneficial and that it also allows them to close down cases where there is no breach quickly, and the team are mindful of the council target to carry out 100% of early site visits in time. Due to the absence of having a principal planning enforcement officer for some time, PStanley advised that there was a build up of formal work and this has therefore impacted first site visits. As resources increase, it is hoped that performance will improve.


Cllr Pringle referred to the focus on getting into Year 12 students and suggested that they could also look at post-graduate students wanting to do PhDs and that they could contact local universities, particularly regarding the Chiltern Beechwoods. Post-graduate students may also be interested in a one-year conversion whilst working part time.


PStanley commented that there are an increasing number of university students taking a year out and that they are looking at attracting these students.

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