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'Seismic' BCP Council planning changes to cut applications backlog

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CHANGES in the BCP Council planning department have been “seismic”, according to portfolio holder Cllr Bobbie Dove, who praised staff for their efforts.

Cllr Dove told the council’s place overview and scrutiny committee that the department had achieved a 40% reduction in its backlog of applications, writes Trevor Bevins of the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

An improvement plan would speed up the process overall by paying extra attention to major applications, she said.

There are still more than 400 applications waiting
There are still more than 400 applications waiting

But she also admitted: “This is a journey and we haven’t quite realised our destination yet.”

Deputy council leader Cllr Phil Broadhead said the authority was the sixth biggest planning authority in the country for major applications and the 10th for non-major proposals, which he said should be welcomed as a sign of investment.

Cllr Steve Bartlett said there had been a tremendous effort to make improvements and he had confidence in the improvement plan.

“There has been a suggestion that the morale of the team is low – but it shouldn’t be. They have done a really first-class job here,” he said.

He described “a perfect storm” in trying to bring three planning departments and different systems together, coupled with the disruptions of Covid and a rise in applications.

A committee report revealed that although there had been a fall in the backlog there are still more than 400 applications waiting.

Councillors have been told there has been a “specific focus” on reducing backlogs to allow new applications to be dealt with quicker.

The committee heard that the department started out with 29 vacancies, but had now taken on 13 new staff, filling some of the other positions with agency staff.

It continues to advertise although there is a national shortage of qualified planning officers.

Cllr Lesley Dedman said the staff figures and pressures they were under left her feeling worried for their welfare.

Cllr Andy Hadley said he still had concerns about what the targets were for the council.

He was told by head of planning Nick Perrins that currently there was no target, but the authority hoped eventually to be in the top end of the performance tables.

The committee report said: “The ongoing work demands and interest in the planning improvement journey has presented a challenging environment within which to operate.

"The staff, however, have dealt with the pressures positively and admirably and have been the driving force behind the increase in performance.”

Many of the performance issues have stemmed from the pandemic which changed working patterns, vacancy levels and an increase in planning applications.

The difficulties were compounded by different IT systems, dating back to before 2019 when there were three council areas.

Further work includes a “clearance fortnight” from 20th June when staff will concentrate on clearing backlog applications.

Also in June is the launch of a Major Applications Forum and a new process for planning legal agreements, together with a new way of registering and validating applications.

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