Almost all planning applications are being dealt with promptly in Brighton and Hove, according to new figures.
A review criticised the performance of the Planning Department at Brighton and Hove City Council but “figures for the last three months show performance has improved significantly”, the council said.
It said that close to 100 per cent of applications were now being determined in time or with the applicant agreeing to give the council more time.
The council said that a Modernisation Programme Board was set up by the council after a peer review carried out in March by the Planning Advisory Service (PAS).
Since then the council’s Planning Department has been trying to address the problems set out in the peer review report.
The council said that the improvements included
- a much faster processing of minor applications
- a new IT system to make it easier to register planning applications and manage performance
- ensuring the advice given to the development industry is timely and appropriate
- staff shortages have been tackled
Earlier Councillor Robert Nemeth spoke about “the dreadful image of the Planning Department in the eyes of public and industry”.
Councillor Julie Cattell, who chairs the council’s Planning Committee, said that she and some others had tears in their eyes when they were first given that tough feedback from the review.
She said that an enormous amount of work had been put into improving the planning service. She thanked the staff for their resilience and the way that they had kept up their morale while working overtime and weekends to clear the backlog.
Councillor Cattell, a professional planner by background, said that during the period when morale was particularly poor a number of experienced staff had left for better-paid jobs.
The council’s new executive director of economy, environment and culture Nick Hibberd said: “We acknowledged that performance wasn’t where we wanted it to be.”
He said that’s why the review was carried out, bringing in people who had a record of good performance.
Mr Hibberd said: “As a city we have a very ambitious growth agenda.”
The review had reflected back to us, he said, that sometimes there was a disconnect between that ambition and some of the work of the Planning Committee.
The council’s policy and major projects manager Andrew Ashcroft, who joined in April, said: “In terms of IT we have effectively gone from a Ford Model T to a Ford Mondeo.
“We can consult with statutory consultees at the touch of a button whereas in the past it was manual.”
The new computer system also made it easier to manage people and their caseloads, he said, although he added: “Without any doubt we need to improve our engagement.”
The IT upgrade was “one of my proudest achievements”, said Councillor Cattell, adding: “It was like going from a valve radio to a digital TV in one leap. It’s the industry standard.”
Some councillors had concerns that some of the changes being brought in might water down the democratic oversight of planning by elected members. They wanted “to encourage more public involvement in the planning process”.
And there were concerns that the prospect of streamlining the number of policies might put at risk important protections.
Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty, who used to chair the Planning Committee, said: “I would warn against a bonfire of policy. Every policy has been created after consultation with the public.”
He also warned against focusing too heavily on new building and growth at the expense of the architectural heritage of the area.
He said: “Planning isn’t just about growth and investment. An awful lot of people visit for Brighton and Hove because of the historic built environment.”
And Councillor Carol Theobald said: “The Planning Department has been in disarray for about three years now.”
But she echoed Councillor Mac Cafferty in dismissing criticisms of the Planning Committee where decisions are rarely made along party lines.
The Greens also indicated that the other two parties were trying to pass the political buck.
Councillor Mac Cafferty said that he had kept an eye on performance and the figures hadn’t shown a deterioration. But, he said, the PAS review found that there were three sets of figures which perhaps explained why.
He asked: “As there were forms of figures can we trust the figures in front of us?”
Mr Ashcroft said: “Yes you can because there is now only one set of figures.”
While there were questions about the way this was being achieved, members of all three parties agreed that the improvements – and the staff responsible for them – merited praise.
Before the meeting Councillor Cattell said: “The delivery of a fit-for-purpose planning service has been my goal from the day I was elected. I’m therefore delighted to report that the service is making significant progress towards becoming more effective, efficient and customer focused.
“Measures are also being introduced to generate valuable income for the city council.
“Although there’s some way to go, I’m confident that significant and sustainable service improvements will continue to be made towards achieving our goal.
“I’d like to thank our service users for their patience and support during this time of change.
“But most of all, I’d like to thank the whole planning team for the incredible hard work and dedication they have shown in bringing about the changes.”