Four vacancies are being advertised as Fenland District Council struggles to come to terms with the decision by Peterborough City Council to remove shared planning services.
Fenland is looking for a senior development manager, senior planning enforcement officer, principal planning officer and assistant planning enforcement officer to join the council.
Cllr Dee Laws, portfolio holder for planning, described the split as a “bombshell” at a recent meeting of Fenland Council when she indicated the separation was on the cards.
One source within Fenland Council told me today: “Fenland District Council planning is failing performance standards for application. It is unlikely to improve and most like the department in special measures by the end of the year. Not that members have been told – yet.”
Peterborough City Council told Fenland Council last December that the split was likely and in fact it came about on March 31 “as specifically set out in a written agreement which both councils had signed”.
The city council said its decision followed a review of its own planning department.
“One of our main priorities moving forward is reviewing Peterborough’s Local Plan, ensuring that the city’s key development needs, including new homes and employment opportunities, can be met,” the city council said in a statement.
“We need to allocate staff for this vital role who were previously engaged in work for other councils as part of agreements.”
Cllr Laws told her councillor colleagues about the issue with the planning department in response to a question from Lib Dem councillor Gavin Booth.
In a question-and-answer session, he referred to new statistics that showed Fenland Council was behind Government targets in determining minor applications.
Cllr Booth said that only 62 per cent of minor applications were being dealt with inside eight weeks, and the performance had been flagged ‘red’ in the council’s own performance tables.
He said council leader Chris Boden had given assurances that the performance is improving.
But he asked how the council can ensure that the figures provided can be improved as it is a common complaint that he is receiving from residents and developers as they are not receiving responses during to the planning department facing staffing issues.
Cllr Laws said the department had “experienced some significant staffing changes recently”. Over a 10-year period there had not been the desire for officers to study for town and planning qualifications and degrees.
It had reached a point, she said, where some officers have retired, taken early retirement, or gone to work in the private sector and the team now find themselves with a number of junior planners but without the senior officers and that is where the gap has arisen.
She explained that there has been efforts made to fill those gaps by using agency staff which has not always proved to be successful.
Change of recruitment company
Cllr Laws said another recruitment company is being used and it is hoped that the staff provided will enable the planning team to stabilise and improve. She said a recruitment exercise to fill a post for a full-time tree officer and also a conservation officer was under way.
Cllr Anne Hay quizzed Cllr Laws about the Local Plan consultation and the expectation that it would be brought before full council in 2023/24.
She wanted to know from Cllr Laws how Peterborough City Council withdrawing their support for planning would affect the affect the timetable for the completion of the Local Plan.
Cllr Laws said: “Yes, you’re absolutely correct that we are in a position now that Peterborough Council they’ve been undergoing an assessment in their own planning department from July last year.
“We hoped it will come to fruition sooner, but it hasn’t and now we’ve obviously got the bombshell that they are considering um taking certain services away from us and I do say the word considering; obviously we are in discussions now.”
She added: “Possibly the leader won’t like what I’m going to say next, but I still believe that we should bring officers totally back into the district council especially in the planning department
“But we are where we are so all I can say is at the moment that negotiations are taking place and I haven’t got any firm answers but I’m happy to keep members obviously informed.”
Peterborough’s planning director Jim Newton told city councillors of the importance of working on its own Local Plan.
Not enough staff to do our own!
“We were effectively being paid to use our staff to do their Local Plans which meant we had no staff to do our own Local Plans,” he told the Peterborough Telegraph last month.
“Those service level agreements are all ending at the end of this month, so we’ll have a full complement of policy team in due course.”
Cllr Laws also told the Telegraph that half of planning case officers at Fenland Council were below manager level, are agency or equivalent and this had “impacted significantly on our performance on the speed of decision making”.
She added: “Whilst we are currently meeting the national performance standards, there is a risk that by December 2023 we will not.”
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