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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee held on 23/11/2004
Staff Interviews



Annexe 3
Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Sub-Committee
Staff Interviews – 9th and 13th September 2004


The Sub-Committee conducted a series of group interviews with more than twenty staff (16 from Planning and Development Department and 4 from Chief Executive’s Department) on 9th and 13th September 2004 with the aim of identifying improvements to the Development Control service. The bullet points below represents the main points raised by the staff at these interviews they are divided into the section involved and then grouped into common themes:


Planning and Development Department – Neighbourhood Team

1. 70% of all applications are dealt with by the Neighbourhood Team

2. Still to an extent area based, but some overlap - more flexibility than previous Area Teams – offer a borough wide view

3. Improvement in speed – increased resources have helped - caseloads have eased

4. Difficulties in recruitment not attractive enough deals offered
i. Uncompetitive
ii. Slow to recruit new staff 5. Agency staff are no solution

6. Had lost many experienced qualified staff over a three year period - lost knowledge

7. Current position is there are many new staff but training required

8. Pre application advice is running at about 30 - 40 cases per month very approximately 10% of total workload

9. Individual officer caseloads are 30 - 50 planning applications per month

10. Lack of progress on Enforcement cases (due to Council policy to concentrate resources on applications) has a major impact on team morale

11. Team do appeals, pre application advice, enforcement, listed buildings, trees, shop fronts, signage and post refusal advice

12. The equation for a successful service is straightforward more staff means a more effective and better service

Member/Committee Processes

1. Many Members’ queries arise from cttee meetings or are emailed

2. Agents’ applications and clients take most time not Members

3. Should only really need a Planning Committee where matters do not fall within approved policies

4. Reduce to 2 or 1 Sub-Committee – this would improve service by allowing/enabling Legal and Highways attendance and presence of senior management – members would be better served by rationalising the Subs

5. Fewer Committees better use of resources 2 - instead of 4

6. Legal and Highways representation (considered necessary) would be possible if there were fewer committees

7. More frequent meetings - 3 weekly cycle – would benefit the public by providing quicker decisions

8. With fewer Committees – local members who do not sit on a cttee may be able to speak on their own behalf – more democratic

9. Guildford - have one only Planning Committee - Runnymede also has only one Committee

10. Plea to members - to get involved earlier rather than last minute when possible refusal gets known

11. Call in - members don’t regularly ask Planners the reasons behind the particular decision but just call-in – a conversation might make them rethink

12. Committee system - 2 not 4 sub-cttees

13. The Neighbourhood and Major Site Teams which are not area based do not reflect the existing committee structure which is based around four area committees

Procedures/systems

1. Policies (SPG’s etc) give a consistency of approach - consistent policies

2. The clearer are the Council's planning policies the easier it is to interpret and turnaround applications

3. Work pattern change - Planners have ‘undisturbed time’ i.e. no telephone calls between 10 - 3.30 p.m. – this has increased productivity and effectiveness

4. The Customer Services Support Team are taking and dealing with queries to enable the above work pattern

5. Members calls however get put through (not seen as a problem in terms of volume)

6. Members’ did not appear aware of 10am - 3.30pm process

7. All applications now have a full report with reasons for decision and justifications the longer reports help with Appeals process and are also more informative and more professional/ they are required under PPG1

8. Pre-application advice freely given in advance, but once application is in this ceases, - customers are paying for the decision process. There is not the time available to advise and discuss with clients once the application has been submitted

9. Could charge for pre-application advice, however some concerns expressed on charging for pre-application service – it would raise expectations and there would have to be many caveats

10. Planning guidance notes issued to would-be applicants have proved really useful

11. Agents don’t generally seek advice

12. Don’t have many DIYers however when we do they tend to seek pre-advice

13. A regular frustration is that Agents don’t pass information on to applicants

14. Increased delegation - has improved speed of decision making and now includes single dwellings – this has also proved a major improvement. One day per week used to be spent on reports for single dwellings - work on non delegated was incredibly time consuming - performance has now gone from 60 - 90% determined within 8 weeks


If staff could have one thing…

1. Dedicated enforcement staff

2. Old enforcement cases are a real concern – build up of investigating 4 year/10 year rule cases which threaten becoming immune from action due to lack of resources (prime task is planning application and appeal process)

3. Waverley probably unique is not having a dedicated enforcement team - numbers of cases are huge – additional resources are required

Planning and Development Department – Customer Enquiry Team
1. Frontline staff responsible for registering applications technical and scrutiny - Quality control, Quality Applications submitted. Applications only considered validated when the number is allocated:
- Clock starts ticking only at this point
- Team also book complaints 2. 3,000 applications in the last year compared to 1,500 five years ago

3. Some days 20% of applications received will be unacceptable and can’t be validated

4. Customer Service Team to be reviewed in April - need to support it - need more staff

Member/Committee Processes

1. Committee deadlines - public speaking almost impossible for applications to get to Committee within eight weeks. Committee cycle - possible meetings every two weeks

2. Some members don’t accept e-service (e-mail) but want hard copy of planning list adds more time to what is already a time consuming process

3. Staff have been instructed not to refer people to their councillors

4. Members should be encouraged to approach the Customer Enquiry Team in the first instance with queries

Procedures/systems

1. Have introduced an accreditation system for professional agents – a fast track scheme for validation

2. PARSOL interactive system being introduced which will enable free validation on-line on whether planning permission is required

3. Planning Department have a statutory requirement to make decisions on planning applications

4. Carrying out non-statutory work is a courtesy service – i.e enquiries on permitted development or giving out planning advice

5. East Hampshire – Charge 55 for pre application enquiries e.g. do I need planning permission

6. Planning Act seems to encourage review of chargeable items

7. Consider charging applicants upfront for non-statutory advice - Rushmoor informal advice is charged at 220

8. Focus on statutory requirements e.g. inordinate time to prepare planning list

9. Invest in IT – even though documents are scanned hard copy documents are still being kept by Planning Officers

10. New Planning Act will allow authorities to set their own standards for planning applications it’ll be up to the Council to decide

11. Have seen an increase in DIY submissions – also there is no qualification needed to become a Planning Agent

12. Website is an excellent resource for the public

13. Being able to do more things especially using IT has led to increased demands for services – this can be time consuming

Planning and Development Department – Major Sites Planning Team

Staffing

1. An established Enforcement Team was needed this would free up time for Planners to concentrate on planning applications and appeals - assist in enabling targets on applications to be met

2. An Enforcement Team would investigate complaints, issue enforcement notices, pursue enforcement and deal with any subsequent enforcement appeals

3. Demands on staff as a result of prioritising reports to the four Sub-Committees

Procedures/systems

1. Amended scheme of delegation was working well but scheme should be extended to enable applications for up to the three dwellings to be approved under delegated powers if not controversial or received any strong representation

2. The ODPM are promoting that all applications should be delegated with exceptions as outlined in the Best practice document rather than as we operate where everything goes to Committee unless it meets the delegation criteria

3. Practice of pre-application consultation was difficult to measure, discussions can go on over a year before an application is submitted. Other consultations may result in a development not proceeding . In both cases the service is currently provided free of charge.

Member/Committee Processes

1. Tight timescales that have to be met to present planning applications to the Sub-Committees and frequency of meetings

2. Reports to Sub-Committees have to be more detailed and available for proofing and approval two weeks before the date of the Sub-Committee (see also 1. above)

3. Major applications tend to go to two Committees

4. Concern was expressed where some councillors had tried to score political points from the reports made to the Sub-Committee

5. It would be helpful if Members’ requested points of clarification etc in advance of Committee meetings

Chief Executive’s Department – Main Reception/Complaints Officers

Complaints

1. In 2003/04 Chief executive received 114 complaints of which over 50% related to Development Control. Many of the complaints were referred to the Ombudsman which was a cause for concern in terms of time, expertise and processing
1. Planners ‘undisturbed time’ system from 10am – 3.30pm although initially not well received by customers is now working reasonably well with calls being handled by the Customer Enquiry Team

2. E-mail response to enquiries is being developed
1. A dedicated Enforcement team should be established

2. Planning applications to be available on-line

3. Pre application consultancy to be given greater emphasis to improve customer relations and to reduce the level of complaints

Chief Executive’s Department – Committee Services Officers

(Officers were invited to comment on the issue that had emerged from previous interviews critical of the number of Planning Committees.)

Member/Committee Processes

1. In the past Waverley has had two area sub-committees, this was increased to three and now there are five including DC Committee

2. Council could consider an urban/rural split, a geographical divide similar to the present system, or a majorsites/neighbourhood application split

3. A reduced number of committees could enable a three weekly cycle to be considered this would mean even if an application missed one meeting it could be considered at the next and still meet the BVPI target

4. Any changes to the number of sub-committees and or their meetings could be phased or adopted as a pilot scheme

5. On the issue of the timescale for report preparation it is Best practice that all reports are included when agendas are despatched. Agendas have to be sent out five clear working days before the meeting to comply with statutory requirements otherwise the meeting has to be cancelled.

Comms/o&s3/2004-05/046


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