Calderdale Council’s Planning department received criticism through last year, particularly over delays in validating and determining applications, and enforcement.
But an inquiry showed the planning team, partly in response to the council’s financial constraints over several years, had fallen below strength leading to a position of crisis.
At June’s Cabinet meeting an example of problems was raised by a member of the public who commented on an application awaiting still determination after three and a half years, even though £29,000 in fees had been paid.
Alongside its regular duties, planning department staff were also involved in producing Calderdale’s draft Local Plan, which is now with a Planning Inspector.
In the spring the council’s Cabinet agreed to budget around £600,000, around half to fund 6.25 full or part-time staff and the other half to fund necessary planning IT software, to help tackle the situation.
Reviewing progress on the plan, Place Scrutiny Board councillors heard although a number of key appointments had been made, staffing was not yet stable.
Despite this, planning lead officer Richard Seaman said the aim was to produce an “ambitious and comprehensive plan” to roll through 2022 and into 2023.
Progress was being made against targets to deal with a backlog of applications as well as new ones which the council received – usually around 1,500 to 1,600 new applications each year.
Having peaked at 838 applications still in hand last September, this had been reduced to 660 and the aim was to lower this by another 200 over the next six months.
“You are always going to have a certain number of applications in the works because you have always a number on hand.
“We have 600 on hand, the peak was around 300 more than that – my feeling is that should be a couple of hundred lower,” he said.
He told the committee that at anyone time around 400 applications on the books would be about what was expected.
The plan is a “living document”, said Mr Seaman, which can move with changing contexts.
With oversight and measurement measures being put in place to track progress against goals drawn up to include staffing and development, performance management, customer service and governance, a major challenge remained recruitment and retention, said Mr Seaman.
“Asked to identify a single biggest risk factor, it is recruitment and retention – the biggest thing that keeps me awake at night,” he said.
“We have talked about recruitment and are also mindful of the need to take our own staff on that journey with us,” he said.
That meant developing their skills and experience and ensuring rewarding careers.
Apprentices were a long term investment who needed to do the job for 12 months
Mr Seaman referred to a memorandum of understanding which all West Yorkshire’s councils had signed up to to share some services and this was because, with a shortage of experienced staff for some roles, they were all in the same boat and best resource, particularly for highly specialised posts such as minerals and waste officers.
To train an apprentice and for them to gain the necessary experience in that field would take around ten to 15 years.
Experienced enforcement officers were in similar short supply.
Agency staff had a place but should not be used as a “bread and butter” resource, said Mr Seaman.
Three planning officers who joined in the latter part of last year were starting to find their feet helped by the return to the office where they could speak to colleagues.
If the council advertises planning officer level jobs applicants were more likely to be graduates than officers with five years’ experience, he said.
Planning Committee Chair Coun Victoria Porritt (Lab, Elland) hopes all councillors would receive more training and development which would potentially allay some members’ frustrations and give a sense of councillors taking ownership of their role as a council, she said.