In August Wales Audit published a report on the County Council's Planning Department. Can the Leader outline the work of this administration in relation to the response to the contents of the report?
‘‘In August Wales Audit published a report on the County Council'sPlanning Department. Can the Leader outline the work of this administration in relation to the response to the contents of the report?’’
Response by Councillor Emlyn Dole – Leader of the Council:-
Thank you for your question Councillor Thomas. I would like to take the opportunity of clarifying the situation and to clear up some of the misinformation that was shared in the previous discussion around planning performance. The last one was the summing up that said we didn’t have a plan in place up until now. To clarify I will give you a timeline of events. Informal feedback from Wales Audit came to the Chief Executive in late April and immediately the Chief Executive asked the Head of ICT and Corporate Policy to establish an intervention board. This intervention board was subsequently established on the 10th May and reports to the intervention assurance board which is Chaired by the Chief Executive.
Audit Wales then sent their draft report to the Chief Executive on the 14th June and the Planning Hub was established a week later on the 21st June to handle all calls to Development Managers initially but now takes calls for planning enforcement. Pre-liminary cabinet received a preliminary progress report on the 24th June. Audit Wales sent their final report to the Chief Executive on July 13th and all staff within the planning department service received a copy of the report on the 21st July. Cabinet received the second progress report on the 26th July and Audit Wales received our formal action plan response to the 17 recommendations on the 30th July. Planning Committee received a verbal update on progress on the 19th August and the next progress report is due to go to the Cabinet on 20th September. Hopefully the timeline provides some clarity over what we’ve already heard this morning.
Audit Wales summary of what they found says exactly this “significant and longstanding performance issues in the planning service need to be urgently addressed to help support the delivery of the council’s ambition”. They say they came to that conclusion because the current arrangements for determining major planning applications needed strengthening to help us to achieve our regeneration ambitions. The longstanding performance issues in development management and planning enforcement were undermining effective service delivery and we need to urgently review our planning performance and service improvement arrangements to the planning service to better serve our customers.
I’m very glad of the question Councillor Thomas and to be able to share that timeline to give clarity and provide reality on our response to the Audit Wales report.
Supplementary Question by Councillor Dai Thomas:
Could the Leader provide further detail on the recommendations and how the Council is continuing to improve.
Response by Councillor Emlyn Dole – Leader of the Council:-
We have actions in progress against all 17 recommendations made by Audit Wales. Detailed performance management dashboards have been created within Arcus Global which is the digital system that is used within the service. Performance of the service is now robustly monitored by the Interim Head of Planning and Senior Managers. That’s currently reported to the intervention assurance board and that will form a key part of the future quarterly performance monitoring reports that Councillor Alun Lenny spoke of earlier to CMT, to Cabinet and to Scrutiny and the Planning Committee.
On major projects we set up a major projects team that is led by Stuart Walters, Economic Development Manager and that was set up on 1st July. This team has identified planning applications that were initially classed as major projects of which 48 applications have since been approved. Out of these, 33 stated job number of 212 new full time jobs and 65 new part-time jobs and in addition safeguarding 300 jobs which include 120 in Llanelli. A new major projects protocol has been drafted and that’s going to be prepared for the regeneration delivery team on the 29th September before it comes to CMT in October after DMT.
On development management and planning applications, Audit Wales reported 847 undetermined planning applications as of 15th March. As of September 13th there are 607 undetermined applications of which 292 remain within the 8 week target for determining planning applications. The backlog of those outside the 8 weeks target window is now 384 so since March the 15th when it was set at 847 by Audit Wales it now stands at 384. That’s the progress we’ve done in the 18 weeks since then. Planning applications dating back more than 5 years as of March 15th when figures were presented to Audit Wales, that was 118 and now stands at 24. The Welsh Government performance indicator is the main performance target for planning applications, that reports in all quarterly performance reports; since the intervention board we have seen a significant improvement in performance month on month in determining those planning applications. For instance, the quarter 4 results in 2021 was 47%, in the quarter 1 report 2021/22 was then at 72% so the improvement is clear to see over the 18 weeks and the current projection for quarter 2 stands at 82%.
On development management and planning enforcement, of the 761 planning enforcement cases that were noted as Councillor Philip Hughes has already mentioned, that work is coming to him as the Cabinet Member with the new case closure protocol. I’m not going to pre-empt it but that gets to grip with the analysis we’ve made as we respond to Audit. There were 139 anonymous cases, 126 that were lodged by council staff and 53 that were logged by elected members. The planning enforcement policy was never formally adopted or implemented and that’s led to a lack of clarity on what constitutes a planning enforcement case. A revised planning enforcement policy has been drafted and that will be consulted with elected members and the members of planning service in a seminar on the 27th September and then with the public before it is finalised and taken through the political process for formal approval at Cabinet. That should provide the clarity that is required to manage the expectations of planning enforcement function.
The planning hub was established on June 21st as a response to staff saying that 50% of their time was taken up with handling enquiries via calls or emails. That has been without doubt the biggest intervention made and the performance reflects that impact. The feedback from staff was that enquiries could sometimes take hours to deal with and lead to significant increase in workload. The hub now allows us to capture those enquires and also ensure that members receive timely responses to their enquiries. Members will play a critical role in the coming months in transforming the planning service. Since 21st June, 2,311 enquiries have been logged by the hub of which 2,200 have been closed and dealt with and that includes almost 200 elected member enquiries.
I am more than happy to release the independent review that we commissioned, so members can see that should they wish. For information in closing, the projected underspend as it stands today for the planning department is £102,000 for 2021/22.