This matter was considered as an item of urgent business.
The Assistant Director for Planning presented an update on Development Management performance, which had been circulated to the Committee prior to the meeting. The main points (summarised):
· Performance retained at 80% of major applications being agreed in time or within extensions of time.
· 80% of non-major decisions within the time period in quarter 8 (78% over 2 years).
· There is stabilisation and improvement in decision making on non-major applications.
· Influencing factors are capacity, software updates, illness and consultation responses.
· Steps are being taken to improve performance and business processes will be considered with the new Director for Place and Climate Change.
Councillor G Mancini-Boyle stated that customer service was his main concern and asked how the issues would be addressed.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that he had previously emphasised the importance of officers contacting the applicant and agent to update them at the end of the consultation period. The difficulty lay with the number of people who commented on applications and the lack of capacity to contact those interested parties proactively. He suggested that a self-service process would enable people to contact the case officers through the planning application inbox. He accepted that there were issues with communication and he would continue to press those issues with the Team Leaders and through team meetings.
Councillor Mancini-Boyle suggested that the pressure on case officers could be eased if additional officers were taken on at a lower level to assist with communication with applicants.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that this was a helpful suggestion. A recruitment process was in hand for entry level officers to replace officers who had left, and forward facing communication would be part of their learning process.
In response to a question by the Chairman, the Assistant Director for Planning outlined the current staffing levels within the Development Management and Major Projects Teams. These were supported by a Planning Processing Unit. There was a good level of staffing at the current time, however there had been a significant influx of cases over the last three months and he would be assessing the number of cases per officer.
The Chairman acknowledged that the caseload per officer was currently very high.
Councillor C Cushing noted that performance on major projects was compared with national statistics, but there was no benchmarking of the overall figures against other authorities. He considered that the required minimum performance level was extremely low at 70% and asked what target this Council was aiming for. He asked why the Planning Department had not applied for apprentices when most other departments had done so.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that there was an effective apprenticeship scheme already in place for both Planning and Building Control. An apprentice was currently in post and two recent graduates had gone through the trainee programme. There was an issue in that the nearest course for planning apprenticeships was many miles away and distance learning was not currently well established. There was a desire in the planning profession to ensure that good learning facilities were established in the area.
With regard to performance targets, the Assistant Director for Planning explained that the key performance indicator was a national position, which over a two year period was 60% for major applications and 70% for non-majors. The Council was seeking performance above 90% for both application types. The target for major applications was difficult in North Norfolk due to the small number of major applications that were received. He explained that major applications required significant partnership working and took longer to bring to a conclusion. He was pressing officers to keep in touch with customers and ensure that extensions of time were agreed for major developments. He welcomed the Committee’s support with regard to capacity issues.
Councillor N Pearce thanked the Assistant Director for Planning for being frank about the problems he was facing. Members cared about the work of the Planning Service, and any improvements that could be made would in turn improve the work of the Committee. He was concerned at the number of appeals that were lodged, particularly in relation to non-major applications, and the impact they had on caseload.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that Councils were also assessed on quality as well as speed. The Council’s appeal record was extremely strong, and the emphasis needed to be on improving speed of non-major decisions.
The Chairman stated that there had been a tremendous increase in non-major applications and it was extremely important to deal with them. Applicants were allowed to appeal if their applications were refused, and it was important to explain to them the likelihood of their appeal being unsuccessful.
Councillor A Brown asked if any measures were proposed to deal with non-major applications that remained undetermined for a considerable time.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that the Government had introduced a planning guarantee some time ago which required the planning fee to be returned if applications were undetermined after 26 weeks without an agreed extension of time. Some applications required careful consideration and negotiations to achieve an acceptable scheme, which avoided an appeal and resubmission. He referred to the Hoveton application that had been approved at this meeting as an example. He suggested that it might be helpful to provide information for the Committee on the number of applications over one year old and proposals for dealing with them.
Councillor J Rest asked if IT issues had caused some of the problems.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that this matter had been discussed at the previous meeting. The transition from the old software to the Uniform package had been carefully managed, but there had been a big step between the two systems. A Support Manager role had now been created to take the lead in the development of the software, troubleshooting and liaison with the IT team and the software provider. The transition had had an impact on performance figures but it had been a necessary step to take as the old system would no longer be supported by the provider.
Councillor Mrs L Withington noted that there appeared to be a pattern where the workload was significantly higher at certain times of the year and there was a higher number of out of time applications in those periods as a result. She asked if consideration had been given to working practices to pre-empt the increased workload and address pressures on staff.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that there had been a significant increase in smaller applications during the pandemic. There had been significant periods of illness for five members of staff that had impacted on performance. It was clear that some of the increases were cyclical and could be planned around. There was substantially more work going through the system that did not form part of the performance report and consideration would be given as to how that additional burden would be managed.
Councillor P Heinrich expressed concern that there were some instances where additional information was requested late in the process, causing applications to be delayed. He referred to a case in his Ward. He considered that some of the delays could be resolved if applicants were made aware at an early stage that further information was required.
The Assistant Director for Planning stated that case officers should contact the agents and applicants at the end of the consultation stage to tell them if further information was required and he needed to understand where this had not happened and what this issues were. Regular team meetings and case conferences took place to help prioritise work. However, the key issue for him was to make it clear that officers must update the applicant and agent at the end of the consultation period.