Agenda item

Planning Service Improvement Plan







Options considered:

This report sets out the proposed Strategy for addressing identified issues of planning performance to improve the overall customer experience.



Options considered within this report are as follows:

  1. Support the Planning Service Improvement Plan, namely the Strategy and production of a draft Action Plan.
  2. Do not support the Planning Service Improvement Plan – The Committee considers that no further work is necessary in relation to development management performance.
  3. To recommend that the Strategy is not sufficient in meeting the identified aims.  This could risk not achieving the necessary aims and delayed progress




It is recommended that Overview & Scrutiny Committee supports the Planning Service Improvement Plan.








Reasons for



That the Overview and Scrutiny Committee supports the Planning Service Improvement Plan, namely the Strategy and production of a draft Action Plan.



To ensure that an appropriate Strategy and Action Plan is in place necessary to provide solutions to the identified service level issues.



(Papers relied on to write the report, which do not contain exempt information, and which are not published elsewhere)




Cabinet Member(s):

Cllr Andrew Brown, Cabinet Portfolio holder for Planning and Enforcement


Ward(s) affected: All

Contact Officer, telephone number and email: Martyn Fulcher, 01236 516244



Cllr A Brown – Portfolio Holder for Planning and Enforcement introduced the report and informed Members that whilst the improvement plan was included for consideration, it was apparent that the impact of nutrient neutrality had impeded progress. He added that applications for the building of overnight accommodation had been paused whilst mitigation measures and a process for measuring development pollution was established. It was noted that the Improvement Plan would be a two stage process with the strategy coming first, followed by an action plan in due course. The DFPCC stated that the Strategy included a timetable of key dates and noted that whilst engagement had been delayed, progress with developing and implementing the Plan would continue. He added that the National Planning Advisory Service had been utilised for guidance and templates, with officers making use of best practice. It was noted that this work would be completed in advance of contacting Parish and Town Councils for comment, which formed part of the engagement process, with consultation via the Town and Parish Council Forum, direct contact, and attending meetings. The DFPCC stated that wider engagement would include social media campaigns to seek the views of the wider public to capture as much feedback as possible.


Questions and Discussion


       i.          The Chairman noted that he was reassured to see that improving the customer experience had been placed at the forefront of the Strategy. He added that he was mindful of the impact that nutrient neutrality, and how this had limited the Council’s ability to seek meaningful feedback, but engagement should take into account all residents. It was suggested that whilst it may not be a good time to consult applicants and agents, residents, Parish and Town Councils and even District Councillors could be consulted for their views on the Planning Service. The Chairman noted that it would be prudent to undertake this consultation first, in advance of making any major decisions on changes to the Service and operating procedure. The DFPCC agreed and suggested that expanding the scope of the consultation and engagement would add value to the Plan, and he would be happy to make these amendments.


      ii.          Cllr V Holliday referred to the lack of customer focus, and stated that she was reassured to see that this had been addressed as a priority within the Plan. She added that social media and the Town and Parish Forum may not be the best way to reach people, as many residents did not engage with these platforms. It was noted that no communication on decision notices and site notices not being displayed were common complaints that had to be addressed, and could be quick wins. Cllr V Holliday suggested that relying on customers to find decision notices was not good customer service, and that better placement of site notices would help customers better understand proposals. The DFPCC replied that the Council did rely on site notices to alert neighbours of applications, as they were not contacted directly. He added that this could be reconsidered, and whilst some site notices were a statutory requirement, contacting neighbours and those likely to be impacted by applications would represent far better customer service. He added that existing site notices were displayed within five days, which in some cases did clash with Town and Parish meetings, and accepted that this could be improved. With regards to decision notices, it was reported that a 24/7 self-service system was being developed, as a reliance on officers to send notices to all Town and Parish Councils was very resource intensive when the Service was already under pressure.


     iii.          The DFPCC referred to quick wins and reported that the service structure had been reorganised to move away from separate Development Control and Majors Teams to one Development Team, working in unison under a single manager. He added that there were also process quick wins to be addressed through the Uniform system, and a working group had been established to improve processes, increase automation and remove duplication. Cllr V Holliday replied that it sounded as though positive steps were being made, but the Service had to ensure that it listened to customers’ needs.


    iv.          Cllr C Cushing referred to the speed of decision making and asked what sort of issues would impede this. The DFPCC replied that primarily this related to the computer system, which did not yet provide templates for decision notices, or have a full list of pre-conditions that had to be individually prepared. He added that when each officer handled forty to fifty cases, these delays amounted to a significant barrier. It was noted that the Member deferral process also added a week to the decision-making process, and in some cases this led to a Committee date being missed, delaying a decision by up to a month. Finally, the caseload of Team Leaders meant that not every decision could be signed-off within the desired timeframe. Cllr C Cushing referred to the IT system used and asked how this could be improved, to which the DFPCC replied that Uniform was used by many Councils, therefore much of the required information was available, but would take time to implement. Cllr C Cushing asked whether the number of applications received was increasing, to which it was suggested that there was a slight increase in the number of applications received, whilst staff numbers had slightly diminished.


      v.          Cllr N Housden suggested that it would be difficult to get a good cross section of views from the general public, then referred to recently announced investment zones, and asked how these would be embraced and promoted in communities. The DFPCC replied that this would form an important part of future communication with Town and Parish Councils, and efforts would be made to help support and improve understanding through improved relationships. Cllr N Housden suggested that many did not understand the Planning process, and thought that further education and training would help. The Chairman suggested that it would be helpful to see how this challenge would be met within the future action plan as understanding of the planning process was varied across the District.


    vi.          Cllr N Pearce noted that the planning process was complicated and was often delayed by external consultees, and suggested that expanding customer engagement to include various bodies would help to address this. He added that many did not understand the full extent of the process, and it would help to make customers more aware of the details. The DFPCC agreed that it would be helpful to communicate more with customers about how the consultation operated, and the delays this could have on the decision making process.


   vii.          Cllr P Heinrich suggested that it could be helpful to create simple guidance to explain to residents what would happen to their applications, with similar guidance for Parish and Town Councils to explain how to understand and respond to applications. The DFPCC agreed that this would be helpful and suggested that discussions had also taken place on internal guidance to ensure that important steps in the process were not missed. He added that guidance could be sent to applicants as part of their registration letters.


  viii.          The Chairman suggested that consultation should begin with Town and Parish Councils whilst waiting for nutrient neutrality issues to be resolved to ensure that engagement was not forgotten.


    ix.          Cllr V Holliday referred to staff retention and asked whether the action plan would include any actions to address this. The DFPCC replied that there were quick wins that could be implemented to retain staff such as offering new training courses and personal development packages, which were being progressed.


      x.          Cllr N Housden asked how consultation feedback would be measured, and it was suggested that this would be determined as part of the action plan. Cllr N Housden suggested that simple yes or no questions would help to identify education gaps at parish and town level. The CE suggested that some expectation management may be required, as there was a fundamental tension between balancing the need for housing and economic growth against the landscape and natural environment, which meant there was always potential for disapproval amongst residents. He added it was also not possible for the District Council to undertake a full consultation on national planning issues such as nutrient neutrality and a potential relaxation of planning regulations, and this had to be taken into account in advance of any engagement. Cllr N Housden replied that tension was a clear issue that had increased in recent years, and had coincided with a reduction in tolerance, but there still had to be efforts made to improve engagement with residents and other customers across the District.


    xi.          Cllr A Brown noted that funding for planning services across the Country had reduced by approximately 40%, and there was likely a disconnect between the aims and expectations of Government reform and what was possible with available funding. He agreed that disappointed applicants would always claim that there were negative aspects in the planning process, and these would be difficult to satisfy during any engagement process. The Chairman noted that this would be a challenge to overcome, and filtering the feedback would be necessary to improve the service.


   xii.          The DSGOS outlined the suggested changes including the separation of the customer engagement process into constituent parts beginning with Town and Parish Councils, ensuring that changes to the planning regime were adequately addressed, and issuing guidance to residents and other Councils. The Chairman clarified that separation of the engagement process would include five elements made up of Town and Parish Councils, applicants, agents, residents and District Councillors. It was noted that statutory consultee delays were a system-wide issue that may be difficult to address, but could be considered by officers. The proposals were recommended by Cllr P Heinrich and seconded by Cllr N Dixon.




1.     That the Overview & Scrutiny Committee supports the Planning Service Improvement Plan, namely the Strategy and production of a draft Action Plan.


To recommend to the Director for Place and Climate Change that:


2.     The customer engagement aspects of the Plan are separated and progressed independently for Town and Parish Councils, District Cllrs, residents, and planning service users (applicants and agents).


3.     Future challenges caused by changes to the planning regime are adequately addressed within the Plan.


4.     That guidance be developed on the planning process for residential applicants.


5.     That consideration is given to expediting responses from statutory consultees to avoid delays in the planning process.



Supporting documents: