The Executive Member for Planning and Growth submitted a report that set out the approach to the updated Planning Enforcement Plan 2021. The Head of Planning and Building Control said that the current plan was last updated in 2016. The updated plan was attached as an Appendix. Members were advised that the approach and priorities to handling enforcement cases needed to be updated.
The Committee was advised that the level of enforcement complaints were high and the Head of Planning and Building Control explained that a majority of enforcement investigations did not result in any further action being taken. She explained the reasons for this and said that all enforcement reports were investigated.
The Head of Planning and Building Control stated that the new plan proposed a triage approach be undertaken before a file was opened for further investigation. She said that this would help Officers identify cases that did not constitute a breach of planning control or were really minor cases. This triage approach would enable Officers to better manage the number of cases and respond quickly based on priorities depending on the level of breach.
The Head of Planning and Building Control said that Officers had recognised that the current system needed to improve and a new approach was needed to improve the overall effectiveness of the planning enforcement service.
Councillor Curtis asked how long the planning enforcement service had been reliant on a high proportion of agency staff. He asked a number of questions relating to the numbers of agency staff and the hours they worked and also how much more expensive they were than non-agency staff.
The Head of Planning and Building Control said that within the last 2 years, Officers had looked at extra resources to assist the enforcement team due to the high number of cases. She said that this had supported recruitment that had taken place and had ensured a wider breadth of experience within the planning enforcement service.
The Service Manager (Development Management) said that the planning enforcement service had been working with a number of extra staff throughout 2020. He said that it was very difficult to quantify cost because although agency workers were more expensive, there were no overheads. Members were advised that some agency staff were more expensive than others and the situation was purely one of workload.
The Head of Planning and Building Control said that the planning service had undergone restructuring in previous years on the operational side but that it was necessary to review it from a planning enforcement viewpoint including resources and the current difficulties in the planning sector in terms of experience at a certain level.
The Head of Planning and Building Control said that she was looking to fill a number of vacant posts and as part of that process,she wanted to make sure that Development Management was a flexible service. She said that she wanted to have experienced “rounded” planners and enforcement Officers that could turn their hand to dealing with a number of issues depending on service priorities.
Councillor Goldspink thanked the Planning Officers for producing this plan at a time when they were under such pressure. She said that the plan was eminently sensible and the way that priorities had been organised made much more sense than had previously been the case. She expressed concern about the pressure being placed on Officers and she understood that they were understaffed and had a huge caseload of 100 cases per Officer. She asked whether there was anything that could be done in addition to this excellent plan to ease the burden.
The Head of Planning and Building said that she understood the point raised by Councillor Goldspink and this was very much in her mind in terms of introducing a new system to reduce the number of enforcement cases.
The Service Manager (Development Management) said that the situation was not just a matter of the availability of Officers time. He said that the current system was cluttered with cases that should be a priority grouped with trivial matters or with cases that were not breaches of planning control. He confirmed that the aim of this new system was to de-clutter the system so that Officers could focus on priority cases instead of spending time looking at cases where the Council did not need to take action.
Councillor Hollebon asked whether a report could be submitted back to Overview and Scrutiny after 6 months in order to hear how successful the new system had been. She commented on the sensitive nature of stressful situations for residents when building works appeared in back gardens above the height of boundary fences. She said that if a matter was judged to be a trivial issue and not an enforcement matter, then an email should be sent to the resident (and Ward Member) by an Administrative Officer to explain this.
The Head of Planning and Building Control said that a review after a year, or at both 6 months and a year, would be a very sensible thing to do. She commented on reporting back to Councillors and also to Town and Parish Councils regarding operational improvements that she would like to make as part of a wider service review.
The Service Manager (Development Management) responded to a question from Councillor Kaye about how challenging it had been to carry out enforcement work over the past year. He referred in particular to the difficulties of not being able carry out site visits except in urgent cases.
Councillor Snowdon asked about the use of the website to address the numbers of queries. The Service Manager (Development Management) said that the website was used but one problem with a question and answer online resource was the very broad nature of the planning service.
Councillor Symonds said that she thought that powers had been delegated to Town and Parish Councils to take down advertisements so long as they were not discarded. The Service Manager (Development Management) said that this had never been the case. He said that Officers had done a lot of work regarding signage and advertisements in the green belt. He said that Officers had been going out once a month before lockdown and advised that the estate agents in Hertford had consistently been breaching signage rules.
Councillor Curtis referred to the very broad definition of “harm” in planning terms. He asked how harm would be defined in the priority levels and whether this would be kept under review by Officers with some Member involvement. He said that harm was a very subjective judgement in the context of planning and enforcement.
The Service Manager (Development Management) said that the degrees of harm could be very obvious at times and he referred to unauthorised gypsy and traveller sites and these breaches caused a lot of concern and correspondence. He said that there was no definition of harm in planning legislation and it was up to the professional judgement of planning officers, which was backed up in terms of the level of complaint received.
Councillor Hollebon proposed and Councillor Goldspink seconded, that the new Planning Enforcement Plan 2021 be received and a further review report be submitted to Overview and Scrutiny Committee in 12 months. After being put to the meeting and a vote taken, the motion was declared CARRIED.
RESOLVED – that the new Planning Enforcement Plan 2021 be received and a further review report be submitted to Overview and Scrutiny Committee in 12 months.