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GBC Planning on Warning as Government Monitors Speed of Application Decisions

Published on: 24 Apr, 2023
Updated on: 27 Apr, 2023

By Hugh Coakley

The government has stepped back from exercising their powers to take over some of GBC’s planning functions. The move was threatened because of GBC’s poor performance.

But now the government has said they will instead monitor GBC up to June 2023 in recognition that there had been improvements in the speed of planning application decisions.

Guildford Borough Council offices at Millmead.

Performance in the council’s planning department was recognised as inadequate as far back as early 2021. In Q3 2022, GBC planning hit the bottom of a national league table for speed in determining non-major planning applications, with only 46 per cent decided on time against a threshold of 70 per cent. They were in the lowest 20 per cent of councils for major applications.

A letter to GBC in February 2023 from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had threatened to “designate” the authority for the speed of its planning decisions for non-major applications meaning some of GBC planning powers could be removed.

See: Government May Limit GBC Planning Powers Due to Slow Decisions

But recent improvements, said a GBC spokesperson, have given the department a reprieve with the government giving the council the opportunity to “demonstrate improved performance” and the requirement that “the performance of our planning service [is] to exceed the required performance thresholds and stay above it consistently”.

A spokesperson for GBC said: “Since last June our planning team has been working hard to reduce the backlog of planning applications, but caseloads remain high. To supplement our internal planning team and improve performance, we have employed external planning consultants and temporary planning officers.

With housing and the cost of living so high in Surrey, recruiting and retaining talent in the South East remains a significant challenge. However, we are actively recruiting new permanent planners to help build a resilient planning function.

“Our new executive head of planning development, Claire Upton-Brown, took up post on March 20, 2023. She has a strong history of turning services around and is well qualified to address the challenges we are facing, with the support of the senior management and councillor team.

Cllr Tom Hunt

Lead councillor for planning, Tom Hunt (Lib Dem, St Nicolas) said: “I’d like to pay tribute to the council’s planning staff whose hard work has resulted in the Secretary of State noting the performance improvement at Guildford Borough Council.

“For the last two quarters, GBC’s performance in determining non-major applications has been above the DLUHC target of 70 per cent. There is still work to do and, with council officers, I will be doing everything we can to ensure this performance improvement continues.”

Cllr Joss Bigmore

Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch), leader of his party, said: “I am pleased that the SoS recognises the significant improvement in our performance over the last nine months where our speed of determinations has been above the level expected by the government. This is the result of significant investment and a great deal of hard work on the part of the officer team.

“However, we still have a significant backlog, and the rate of new applications shows no sign of reverting to historical norms so we can’t get complacent.  I would like to apologise on behalf of GBC for everyone that has been affected by this situation.”

Howard Smith

Howard Smith, vice chair of Guildford Labour commented: “The irony is extraordinary! One of the reasons for planning performance being so bad is that Guildford can’t recruit staff due to the high price of housing, which itself is a direct result of the Planning Committee refusing to accept planning applications.

“We now have an emergency contract with expensive private consultants (do we know what this is costing us?) and then the new executive head will simply have to wave her magic wand and sort it all out.

“Claire Upton-Brown has quite a challenge as I doubt she will force house prices to fall in Guildford and so be able to recruit good staff. It all shows what a terrible mess the current council is under its present leadership.”

A notice on the GBC website states: “We have suspended the pre-application enquiry service for non-major applications. This will be for a temporary period. We will resume this service when we have cleared the backlog.”

The Dragon has contacted Conservatives and GGG for comment.

See also: The Dragon Says: “Whats Going on at GBC Planning? (February 2023)

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