“I’ve given up. I don’t care any longer to be honest.”
I was shopping at the Co-op on Foldgate Lane earlier in the week when Mr S collared me in an aisle to make his views known about delays to his planning application. It was no surprise to me that he was frustrated, only that he was so mild tempered about it. After all, the first planning application he put in for his site took eight months to be decided. The government target is eight weeks for applications of this type. He submitted a second application and that has gone seven months so far without a decision. He is promised a decision next month.
Mr S is not alone.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been contacted by a developer, agent or householder anxious to know why their planning application has not been decided. Straightforward proposals have been taking months to process not weeks.
One agent for a developer on a smaller application recently raged by email that he thought the council’s chief planning officer cared only for his monthly pay check, an email he sent to 22 people in the council and beyond. He concluded:
“You can determine my applications however you like, I have given up!”
This infuriated agent is unusual in speaking out in a semi-public way. Many more feel –wrongly – that they will be penalised with rejection of their application if they kick up a fuss, as do some householders. So they keep quiet. The angry agent is not alone in blaming council officers for the problem, but both he and those that blame council staff are wrong.
The problem lies not with individual officers but at a political level where Shropshire Council is failing to invest in its planning service.
The council got seriously behind in processing planning applications in 2014 as the recession ended and developers began to get more enthusiastic about building again. A glut of solar farm applications have landed on planners’ desks as companies and landowners try to get permission before subsidies are cut.
Matters have not been helped by the Shropshire Council allowing a number of experienced planning staff to take redundancy in the last few years. Some of the most experienced people took attractive packages and immediately picked up jobs with developers. The council now has trouble in attracting and retaining planning staff. The remaining staff are in consequence severely overloaded.
The collision of growth and cutbacks has led to long delays in many applications getting decided.
The pressure on planning staff has also led to errors and missed deadlines. The council’s statements of case in two recent solar farm appeals in the south of the county were submitted after planning inspectorate deadlines. Fortunately, in these cases the planning inspectorate agreed to accept the statements, even though it was well within its rights to reject them.
The current highly stressed environment is not fair on current planning staff who are coming under a lot of pressure from developers and councillors for not making timely decisions. It is not unusual to receive an email from planning officers at midnight or on a Sunday as they try to tackle the backlog.
Delays in planning are expensive to the applicant. They can also be costly to the council.
It is not widely understood that the planning inspectorate can order a council to pay costs even if it wins an appeal. One situation in which costs can be imposed is when a council does not provide information in a timely fashion. This happened in Shropshire recently (and also Cheshire).
This a sorry tale is a result of council underinvestment. Shropshire Council’s development management service earns around £2 million a year from the fees it charges to developers. In 2014/15, it was double that.
But, despite questions asked by Councillor Roger Evans and myself, we don’t know how much the council spends on processing planning applications. That’s because Shropshire Council doesn’t itself know, an unfortunate position for any business.
Planning brings in more than fees from the developer. For any new home built or empty home brought back into use, the government gives councils a payment known as the New Homes Bonus. Shropshire Council has received £22 million in bonus payments. Almost none of this has gone back into the planning department.
This is a very curious business model. Given that the main problem facing the planning department is a lack of expert staff, any rationale business would have invested in more planners to help get houses built and increase the level of New Homes Bonus. But Shropshire Council’s leadership doesn’t seem to think like a rational business.
Matters will hopefully ease shortly. The council has taken on three expert planning consultants, one focused on the south of the county. The surge of solar farm applications has probably peaked after cuts in government subsidies. Shropshire’s local plan, SAMDev, is likely to be adopted by the end of the year. That will reduce the number of speculative bids on greenfield sites that are not in SAMDev.
So it may be that we are turning the corner. But staff are still struggling with a substantial backlog of applications from 2014.
The only way to prevent a major problem like this occurring again is to invest more of the income the planning department brings to the council in ensuring there is always an adequate complement of planning staff. The council’s leaders need to recognise that planning expertise can’t be turned on and off like a tap.
If that investment happens, we’ll be able to help people like Mr S, rather merely sympathising with him.
. An inspector recently dismissed an appeal for nine homes in Highley but ordered Shropshire Council to pay the applicant’s appeal costs because of the council’s “failure to communicate and prolonged inaction on the application.” The appeal had been brought by the applicant because the council had failed to determine the application in a reasonable time. The case officer told the applicant: “Caseloads are very high at present and I have not yet been able to give the required level of time I would like to give this application before I give you a fuller response on the proposal” (15/02212/NONDET).
. Shropshire Council’s income from processing planning applications: 2012/13: £1,666,057; 2013/14: £2,863,384; 2014/15: £4,059,737; 2015/16: £2,110,200 (projected).
. New Homes Bonus received by Shropshire Council: 2013/14: £8.8 million; 2014/15: £5.8 million; 2015/16: £7.4 million.