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The Dragon Says: What’s Going On at GBC Planning?

Published on: 13 Feb, 2023
Updated on: 19 Feb, 2023

It’s been nearly two years since The Dragon first alerted our readers to GBC’s problems with delays in its planning department.

It’s frustrating for everyone but none more than the poor applicants who are left hanging with costs rising and plans on hold, not able to contact planning officers while waiting for a decision. One applicant said they felt they were in a “black hole” of communications.

See Backlog of Planning Applications Doubles at GBC (April 2021).

21 months later, the problems still persist and now Guildford appears to be doing worse than any other council in the country for non-major applications.

The council is being considered for “designation” by the government due to slow processing which could result in some applications bypassing GBC altogether and going straight to the Planning Inspectorate.

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

And GBC is not too clever on major applications either where we are still in the bottom 20 per cent of district and borough councils nationally, coming in at 261 in the table out of 329 councils.

In June 2022 the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report into the future of the planning system concluded that more money was needed for council planning departments.

“There is a clear need for additional resources for local planning authorities and this was reflected in evidence from a wide range of sectors. The reduction in their funding is slowing down the workings of the planning system,’ the MPs’ report stated.”

Few would disagree that resource is a major issue but why is Guildford doing so badly compared to other councils?

GBC says it depends on the “size of an authority, how a local planning authority (LPA) is structured and the nature of the local jobs market for planners”. But they have declined to say why they are doing worse than others saying they won’t comment on the performance of other planning authorities.

Other seemingly comparable towns are doing better than us, much better. Wokingham, Mid Sussex and Maidstone come in at 99 per cent decided on time in Q3 2022 compared to Guildford’s 46 per cent. Horsham is 96 per cent, Chelmsford at 93 per cent, Winchester at 92 per cent and Reigate and Banstead at 89 per cent. They all have a comparable number of planning applications.

Some other neighbouring councils, Waverley at 62 per cent and Epsom & Ewell at 52 per cent, are not rating well either so is being in this part of the South East part of the problem?

GBC’s response, reported in our article on April 2021, was that the problems were being experienced nationally and they were dealing with it.

But nearly two years on and eight articles on the subject later, we are still in the same situation.

In a response to the government, GBC blames a “failure to negotiate extensions of time” with applicants, a new corporate structure within the council, a staffing crisis and a “marked increase” in applications.

They say they are addressing it “by investing in the service, engaging additional resources, implementing an Improvement Action Plan and monitoring and driving the necessary change through a Planning Development Improvement Board”.

Why wasn’t this being done before we got to the sorry state of bottom of the national league tables?  And it still doesn’t explain why we are doing worse than others. GBC doesn’t say or maybe it doesn’t know.

Delays to planning proposals can be extremely frustrating for local residents.

A GBC officer’s memo to all councillors in September 2021, leaked to The Dragon, may give a clue. It spoke of problems in leadership saying “since the start of the pandemic there have been no significant changes to operations, other authorities initiated emergency delegation etc to keep things moving”.

Being bottom of the national league table on timely planning decisions isn’t a good look for any council. We have been told that the delays have featured heavily in letters from constituents but our councillors are curiously quiet. We haven’t heard of any councillor making a fuss of it recently or trying to raise it up the council’s list of priorities.

It has started to be an election issue now with deputy council leader and R4GV lead, Joss Bigmore, putting the planning failures in a list of accusations against the Lib Dems.

See: Coalition Partners Trade Verbal Blows While Claiming Credit for Latest Council Budget)

The councillor in charge of the planning department is Tom Hunt (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) but R4GV led the council up until recently under Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch) so if it is leadership to blame maybe both coalition partners should bear some responsibility.

But regardless of the political finger-pointing, the question remains unanswered; why is Guildford, compared to other councils, doing so badly? Let us hope that some in the management chain are thinking hard.

Other articles on this subject:

Planning Backlog Increases as Councillor Says ‘It’s a Mess’ (October 2021)

Planning Backlog Stable as Applications Received ‘Drop From Peak’ (January 2022)

GBC Councillor Says ‘Sorry for Planning Delays (May 2022)

Council’s Planning Problems Still Not Resolved After More Than a Year of Delays (June 2022)

250 Planning Applications in Limbo as GBC Lies Near the Bottom of National Tables (September 2022)

Guildford Hits Bottom of National League Tables for Planning Performance (January 2023)

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Responses to The Dragon Says: What’s Going On at GBC Planning?

  1. Graham Cole Reply

    February 13, 2023 at 11:16 am

    What’s going on – ego trips, incompetence and laziness.

    What’s not going on – care about Guildford community.

    Do I really underestimate the complexity of the issue, or am I correct?

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    February 13, 2023 at 11:56 am

    The problem goes back to around 2000-2005 when certain planning decisions were made by the GBC planning department.

    For instance, the proposal to build a housing estate of 750 homes on a site occupied by an important piece of infrastructure now to contain an even greater number of homes; 1,600 ghetto boxes.

    Still an idea in all but paperwork with an open and bottomless financial pit, the Local Plan forced on the community to strong disagreement six to 8 years later.

    Two statements come to mind:
    If only they had listened to what the community wanted.
    If they had only considered infrastructure in 2003 Local Plan.

    If only!

  3. RWL Davies Reply

    February 13, 2023 at 2:50 pm

    Hold CAOFP

    All the evidence points to Mr Cole being correct.

    The late Terry Thomas used the phrase “you’re a shower, an absolute shower” in some of his films; could this be relevant to the councillors concerned with planning?

    Not the staff I would add.

  4. Sue Hackman Reply

    February 22, 2023 at 9:27 am

    I’m intrigued that part of the explanation given by the council for delays to planning decisions is ‘a new corporate structure within the council’.

    I thought changes to the corporate structure were meant to improve service?

    Can we hear from them exactly how the changes to corporate structure have impeded the council’s work, and why therefore they have made them?

    Sue Hackman is the elections officer for Guildford Labour

  5. Colin Pickup Reply

    April 14, 2024 at 7:05 am

    I have found it impossible to contact Guildford Borough Council. My efforts are hopelessly directed to a registration system with a 10 day delay possible.

    The phone is unanswered and an email is required to an address that is relayed to quickly to quickly to write down.

    I have given up for the time being.

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