Phone lines to the city’s planning department have been cut for three months to give officers enough time to answer emails in less than a week.
Brighton and Hove City Council says the move is being made because of an increase in application caseloads.
But planning consultants say that the move will lead to a “summer of indecision and chaos” – and could slow down much-needed development.
Alex Bateman of Stiles Harold Williams says he and other planning professionals were only given one working day’s notice of the changes. He has now written to Liz Hobden, the head of the council’s planning team, to request the phones be answered in a daily two-hour window as before.
Mr Bateman said: “Brighton and Hove claim there has been a ‘spike’ in applications, yet we have conducted comparative research vis-a-vis Mid-Sussex District Council’s case load and B&H have slightly fewer applications to review.
“We are trying to act in the best interest of our clients, but the council is making it very difficult for legitimate cases for positive change to occur, thus stifling the economic development of the city we try so hard to champion.
“I would implore Liz Hobden to reinstate the phone lines as soon as possible for the benefit of all concerned.”
A statement posted on the council’s website last Monday said: “The planning service has experienced an increase in planning application caseloads. We are taking a number of immediate actions to address this to reduce the number of live planning applications and officer caseloads.
“One of these actions is to temporarily suspend telephone access to case officers for three months from Monday, 16 July 2018 to 15 October 2018.
“This is an interim measure to allow case officers to focus on ensuring the other two customer service standards are met (responding to emails within five working days and providing a proactive update on planning applications) and to improve timings on planning decisions.”
Councillor Robert Nemeth, who has asked many questions about the planning department’s performance, said: “My maiden speech in 2015 was on the Labour Administration’s failure to get a grip on the planning system.
“Three years on and we find that there has been an exodus of staff. The backlogs have grown rather shrunk.
“Planning enforcement has a 600-case queue. With fees due to go up, it’s outrageous that service levels will be going down.”
There are currently 1,100 applications lodged with the city council but yet to be decided – this includes applications which have yet to be registered and those which are still under consultation.
Of these, 39 applications were received more than eight weeks ago – a far smaller number than the 550 which the department was struggling with in August 2015 following the departure of planning chief Martin Randall and other members of staff. At that point, just 20% of applications were decided within statutory time limits.
The department then refused all non-urgent work and put other measures into place to combat the backlog.
A year later, the department said it was deciding nearly all planning applications on time – although it achieved this partly by agreeing delays to deadlines with developers on hundreds of applications.