To update Overview and Scrutiny on the performance and activity of the Planning Service in 2020/21.
Councillor Mason welcomed Nick Harding, Carol Pilson and Councillor Laws to the meeting. Members considered the 2021 Planning Shared Service Annual Review presented by Nick Harding:
· Nick Harding noted several small changes to the report including an alteration to table three to read 2014-2021 and noted that the statistics below table five should read that the Council performed better on major and other applications.
Members asked questions, made comments and received responses as follows:
· Councillor Cornwell enquired to what degree the reduction of resources at Peterborough City Council (PCC) had affected Fenland District Council’s (FDC) need to employ more resources directly, referencing the fact that planning was supposed to be a shared service with PCC. He also noted references to IT failures in the report and asked for a further explanation of the causes and the affects these had. Nick Harding informed the panel that the shared service was contractually limited to his own and Emma Nasta’s employment stating that the shared service was a management level agreement. He explained that FDC had previously received officer support from PCC when capacity allowed but that this was on a short-term, ad hoc loan arrangement rather than a contractual obligation. It was noted that initial attempts to create a shared service at a technical level proved unattainable due to slow and unstable IT connections between PCC and FDC. Nick Harding provided an update on the current situation and informed the panel that, due to an increase in applications, a growth bid was being submitted to Corporate Management Team for assessment and that current practices and procedures were being reviewed to improve efficiency. Regarding the IT issues, Nick Harding explained that these were primarily due to a software upgrade which had taken time to install and had introduced some bugs which need to be addressed before going live. He noted that the only persisting bug revolved around customers using a specific redaction software which resulted in unreadable documents when provided to FDC.
· Councillor Yeulett asked which problem listed in the report had the greatest impact on the planning service and how it had been addressed. Nick Harding explained that an additional temporary resource had been deployed to deal with the validation backlog reducing the time behind to four weeks. He also noted the turnover of staff as a part time officer had been replaced by a fulltime officer to help ease the workload and explained that the service is conscious a permanent solution is needed hence the growth bid. Councillor Laws commended the tech team working on the validations and explained that the volume of work had been unprecedented and was not helped by the quality of submissions received. She noted that the Fenland Developers Forum had attempted to educate agents and developers through workshops to improve the submission of their application which had stood at four percent correct first time and has now rose to nine percent six months on.
· Councillor Yeulett asked whether the review of PCC’s services was requested unilaterally and if FDC had any input in the process. He also asked how the results would affect FDC. Nick Harding explained that the review was commissioned by PCC due to budget pressures, their backlog of applications and case load work. Carol Pilson noted that PCC have the right to review their own services and that they had paid the courtesy of informing FDC. She informed the panel that there had been ongoing contact between PCC and FDC, that discussions had taken place on the potential impact of the review and that further communication was planned for December. She explained that the review was broad and revolved around ensuring their processes are fit for purpose. In terms of possible effect on FDC, Carol Pilson stated that it could affect the shared service agreement, however FDC had been able to provide input to the review and any change to the agreement would take 6 months to implement providing leeway to address the issue if necessary.
· Councillor Miscandlon asked why the new enforcement officer had not been introduced to the public. He also noted that the planning department were poor at responding to emails from members of the public and asked whether holding emails could be utilised. Nick Harding agreed that an introduction of the new officer to those with current cases would have been ideal however due to time constraints it was felt that prioritisation should be given to validation. He noted that an introduction email could be arranged if the panel believed it pertinent. Regarding the unanswered emails, Nick Harding explained that further investigation would be undertaken and offered to discuss this further with Councillor Miscandlon.
· Councillor Laws asked for clarification on whether members of the public are using the planning enquiry email address. Councillor Miscandlon clarified that individuals were sending in applications and queries and no holding emails were being sent back. Councillor Laws noted that a conversation had been had before regarding improving the IT software and publicising on the website. She noted that the issue stemmed from the agent failing to update the applicant resulting in applicants directly contacting the Council to receive an update.
· Councillor Wicks asked whether the software upgrade was a commercial or inhouse one. Nick Harding explained that the software provider was Idox who provide the new version of the software. He noted that these updates can go on to cause issues.
· Councillor Wicks asked whether the issues affected other Councils and enquired whether enough testing had been undertaken before the software was implemented. He questioned what feedback was provided to the supplier to rectify any issues found. Nick Harding noted that the issues only affected FDC and that PCC had avoided these, he presumed that the issue lay with the set up of the IT system rather than the software itself. He did note that the issue of redaction seemed to be national. Nick Harding explained that issues are identified by officers and members of the public and that the error messages or descriptions of the problem are then passed to FDC’s IT department. He explained that the IT team undertake an initial assessment to identify whether the cause is internal or external and regretted that there was no information to hand regarding time spent by the IT department dealing with these issues.
· Councillor Hay asked why it had taken a prolonged period of time to elicit a response from the Tree Officer regarding Ely House. Nick Harding noted that it was not appropriate to discuss individual planning applications at this meeting but disclosed that this application was incomplete when received and that a reply had been sent in September explaining that the application was invalid and the reasons why.
· Councillor Hay noted that the percentages provided for applications handled in time were difficult to understand without knowing the total number of applications each year. She also asked if time extensions were fixed for each applicant or whether they were decided on a case-by-case basis. Nick Harding informed the panel that in the year ending March 2021, the Council had received 12 major applications, 330 minor applications and 250 other applications. He explained that the time extensions were determined on a case-by-case basis which was determined by the complexity of the application and where the application sat in the overall process. He noted that extensions were negotiated with the agent or applicant and informed the panel that the extensions could be rejected by the applicant or agent if they felt they were excessive.
· Councillor Hay asked that future reports include total numbers alongside the percentages provided and that the shortest and longest extensions also be included.
· Councillor Connor asked for a breakdown of the number of planning applications going to committee over the past three years along with the number of applications during the current year if possible. Nick Harding informed the panel that he would provide a written update after the meeting as he did not have this information to hand.
· Councillor Booth argued that the use of the term shared service was a misnomer. He asked whether there was any possibility of expanding the shared service and questioned whether PCC were likely to pull out of the contract. He felt the Shared Service was going backwards as elements such as the loaning of officers during peak periods which initially sold the service to members was no longer available. Carol Pilson assured the panel that the earlier comment regarding the six month cessation period was only mentioned to reassure the panel that a sufficient time period was in place to deal with any consequences of the shared service agreement ending. She agreed that the term shared service had become a misnomer as the initial plans to create a true shared service had been unfeasible for reasons explained by Nick Harding earlier in the meeting. She explained that the Council was consistently exploring opportunities to utilise PCC services and cited the development of the local plan as one area where this had been achieved. She explained that dependant on the PCC review outcomes, FDC could reassess whether a deeper integration of the planning shared service was now possible if Members so wished.
· Councillor Booth asked whether there were any potential cost savings with a deeper integration of the shared service. He asked for further information to be included in future reports regarding staff including who the team comprises of and what the staff turnover had been in order to keep members better informed of any changes. Nick Harding explained that emails are circulated when new staff are appointed and that this included members. He apologised if this had been missed with the most recent appointment and said that he would ensure that this would be fixed if it had been overlooked. Councillor Laws explained that the Planning Officer who left in August was a contractor and that these changes in staff are not usually publicised.
· Councillor Booth noted that he had received anecdotal information that the validation process was highly stringent and that there was a feeling among some that this was being used as a reason not to progress applications. He asked whether there was scope to review the validation process to streamline it. Councillor Laws noted that the technical team were thorough but that this made sure that the right information is passed to the planning team reducing the amount of time needed there. Nick Harding agreed that the validation process was stringent but that this was necessary to ensure that the drawings are correct to prevent complaints around errors when the plans go out to consultation. He noted that the majority of errors from applicants are simple things such as not signing the document or failing to include scales.
· Councillor Booth asked whether there was an expected completion date for the traveller and gypsy housing needs assessment and questioned why there had been such a long delay considering its importance. Nick Harding noted that he would provide a written response regarding the expected completion date and explained that delays were due to Covid and the hesitancy of the community to allow site visits which are necessary to inform the overall assessment.
· Councillor Mason asked for further information regarding time allocated to major applications against minor applications. He noted that the completion of minor applications in time had dropped from the previous year whilst the completion of major applications had remained at 100 percent. Nick Harding noted that different application types have different levels of complexity and that major applications are dealt with by more senior staff. He explained that it was difficult to assess the data in this way but that he would investigate it further. Councillor Laws further explained that major applications are submitted by highly experienced, professional agents whereas those submitting minor and other applications may have less experience. She surmised that this could explain the discrepancies between Major and Minor applications. Councillor Laws also noted that there had been an increase in the number of minor applications being submitted.
· Councillor Cornwell noted that the lack of responses to emails from FDC had been prevalent in the local news and asked whether the Council’s main customer services policies needed revisiting to address this. He asked whether FDC could ask to see what the proposals are and how they would affect the Council. Nick Harding noted that FDC undertake reviews without informing PCC and that there was a differentiation in how the two Councils conduct the process.
· Councillor Mason thanked Nick Harding, Carol Pilson and Councillor Laws for their contribution.
The report was noted for information.