Fringe Box



Letter: Problems with Guildford Planning Are Wide-ranging

Published on: 18 May, 2023
Updated on: 18 May, 2023

From: Ramsey Nagaty

Chair of the Guildford Greenbelt Group

The Local Plan 2019 adopted by the Conservative administration and supported by Lib Dem leader Caroline Reeves opened the floodgates for planning applications.

The insetting of the villages from the greenbelt compounded by Covid and “work from home” has brought an unprecedented number of planning applications.

The Executive portfolio holder responsible for the planning department for the last four years has been Liberal Democrat. Sadly, administration of the department did not enable it to cope with the increased workload.

The problem has been compounded by various internal issues including, the uncertainty of job security under “Future Guildford” [a cost-cutting programme], alleged bullying, Covid, heavy individual workloads and failure to embrace political change. Recruitment of permanent planning officers is hampered as GBC’s current situation and the workload level do not encourage applicants.

Together these issues resulted in a vast turnover of staff and the use of temporary and agency staff. The contract with Luken Beck of Southampton to handle planning applications introduces planners who have no local knowledge and whose work still requires sign-off by a permanent planning officer. This has led to some bizarre officer reports with simple errors such as stating no bus service when an hourly bus went past in both directions.

Instead of fully addressing management and staff issues the spotlight was put on councillors and the removal of the seven-day notice to ward councillors. (Councillors are advised the loss of seven-day notice should be acceptable as they can have early access to officers, but it took me nigh on four months recently!)

While officers and councillors must act respectfully towards each other, the Lib Dem policy of not questioning and holding officers to account does not bode well for fixing the problem.

There have been times when not one planning officer was present in their office. The pre-app service keeps being suspended. Communication is a big problem. Residents cannot get through on the phone or by attending Millmead. Even councillors with direct telephone numbers to the planning officers often get an answer machine response.

The new CEO has identified a culture of insecurity and defensiveness against Councillors and Management by Officers which he is attempting to address.  The input by interim head of planning Gilian Macinnes has been beneficial with short-term improved performance and the appointment of Claire Upton-Brown as permanent head of planning should bring further extensive experience.

It is to be hoped that with ongoing improvement in performance GBC retains control over the forthcoming larger projects and that the Secretary of State is not acting with political or other motives to facilitate development of locally contentious sites.

It is neither ideal nor democratic for control of larger applications to be lost locally and be wholly dealt with by a central government planning inspector, acting alone.



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