Horsham District Council was last week named by ‘Planning’ magazine as one of seven local planning authorities that are currently in line to be placed in ‘special measures’.
According to the magazine, under the controversial new policy, councils that determine fewer than 30 per cent of major applications within 13 weeks over a two-year period are to be stripped of their planning powers. In such cases, developers will be given the option of submitting major applications directly to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), rather than the local planning authority.
It said Horsham’s determination rate at 19.8 per cent for the first 18 months to last December was the worst of all councils in England – a figure which HDC does not dispute.
However, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) will base its final decision on ‘special measures’ on the performance to the end of June 2013 - and expects to announce initial designations in October. With the final six months’ worth of statistics still to be confirmed, there remains a chance that Horsham may still exceed the 30 per cent figure.
The other six councils named at being at risk of being placed in special measures were Daventry, Halton, Hounslow, Fylde, Cherwell and Enfield.
Horsham District Council said that it has one of the busiest planning departments in the country. In the third quarter of 2012/13, in terms of numbers of major applications decided, HDC highlighted the fact that it was 22nd highest out of a total of 197 district and borough councils in England. In addition the council has pointed out that it approved 78 per cent of major applications in the two years up to June 2013. “The speed of determination of major applications over the period does not represent the true picture of the quality of service provided for major applications,” a spokesman said.
It also announced this week that it has decided to accelerate the Transformation plans for the Development Control department and to immediately engage a highly experienced senior planning specialist on an interim basis to work with the Chief Executive, the Cabinet Member and the Head of Service and his team to move things on rapidly.
Horsham District Council’s response
The Horsham district is under very significant pressure from developers and the council needs to ensure all planning applications are given full and careful scrutiny with ample time allowed for full public comment and to examine the economic, environmental and social implications of development proposals.
In the majority of cases developers prefer to work collaboratively with us to achieve a negotiated permission. Given the complexity and sensitivity of many major cases this will often take more than the 13 week statutory period.
The district council, however is facing great pressure for further development and as part of our on-going Business Transformation Programme, the council recognises there is a need for improvements to its development management process. Action is already underway on a number of fronts and members of the council recently went on a visit to Eastbourne Borough Council to see how they have transformed their planning operation. Further visits to other councils to look at their processes are planned. Internally the Council’s Business Improvement Working Group (BIWG) has also begun a review of the service.
Given the new Act and the risk of designation, in consultation with the Cabinet Member and the Leader, it has been decided to accelerate the Transformation plans for the Development Control department and to immediately engage a highly experienced senior planning specialist on an interim basis to work with the Chief Executive, the Cabinet Member and the Head of Service and his team to move things on rapidly.
Cabinet Member, Claire Vickers, said: “We already have permissions granted for almost 7,000 new homes and yet we are still under intense development pressure from both builders and from the Government.
“These major applications need very careful scrutiny. They usually involve highly complex and sensitive issues and the public must be given ample time to give their views too. Looking at the speed of determination of major planning applications alone does not give a true picture of the quality of service we provide. Most applicants understand this and are content to work with us to achieve a negotiated permission.
“We all supported the steps the Government took after the General Election to remove Labour’s centralised and target-driven approach to public services and I find it disappointing that under this new Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 the Coalition Government has brought simplistic targets back.
“I do not agree that planning powers over major developments should move from councils to the Minister. On the contrary, I would greatly support strengthening local input. It seems to me that in any move to allow developers to by-pass local planning authorities, the Government is completely side-stepping the concept of Localism that it has been so actively promoting and we as a council are working hard to support.
“As the new Cabinet Member, I fully recognise that our planning service must become more responsive and we are already taking steps to streamline our processes without compromising quality. I am determined to do my utmost to ensure we succeed. In addition, we will be asking our MPs to ensure that the improvements we are making and our track record of delivering housing approvals are given significant weight by the Secretary of State should he look at our council’s record or consider designation.”