Bedford Borough ranked 322 out of the 333 local planning authorities.

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Bedford Borough Council planners try to keep applicants up to date with decision delays, but if they updated them every day the planners wouldn’t have the time to do anything else, a meeting heard.

Jon Shortland, chief officer – planning, infrastructure & economic growth, told the Planning Review Task & Finish Group last week (March 10), the determination periods for major and minor planning applications are used by the government to check the performance of local planning authorities.

“They’ve set particular targets for determining major applications they want to see 60% determined within 13 weeks and with minors they look to see 70% within eight weeks,” he said.

“In both cases, if you agree an extension of time with the applicant then those 13 and eight-week deadlines can be extended.

“Our actual performance over the last nearly two years for majors has been very good, against that 60% we achieved 81% in 2021, and we have currently achieved 83% in the first three-quarters of 21/22.

“The area where we haven’t performed as well is in the minor applications, where the performance for 20/21 was 72%, so it was above the threshold but not by a large amount.

“In the latest league table that the government has produced, which covers the two years to the end of September 2021, our determination rate is 71%.

“And that places us currently 322 out of the 333 local planning authorities.

The Group’s chair, councillor Stephen Moon (Conservative, Great Barford Ward), asked if any consideration was given to determine ‘good’ delays.

Mr Shortland replied: “No there hasn’t, that would be a very subjective argument to decide what was good and bad.

“Whilst we might have a go at that for ourselves we certainly couldn’t do it in comparison to any other authority.”

Mr Shortland added that some delays can be “helpful”.

“There’s an initial reaction to think that anything going past its deadline is a bad thing,” he said.

“That isn’t necessarily the case if you’re an applicant who is facing a refusal but you believe that you can provide extra, or new, information which will help tilt the balance in your favour.

“Then agreeing an extension of time is clearly a good thing for you.

“It’s also a good thing in terms of making the right decision because we can make it on the basis of all of the information being available to us, rather than just a partial view of the situation.”

Janine Laver, the council’s development manager, said the planning officers tend to communicate with applicants that there are delays.

“Some applicants are very sympathetic to this and will grant extensions,” she said.

“Some are not as sympathetic and will never grant an extension regardless.

“The majority of the time you’ll seek an extension because you are awaiting a consultation response which would be intrinsic to the outcome of an application.

“So if we haven’t had a highways response, for example, or a response from environmental health on noise, we simply can’t make an assessment on some applications within the time frame.

“We can chase those consultees they might come back and ask for further information at which point we could either refuse because the application’s inadequate, or we can then say ‘look we’ll give you time to respond’ and some are willing and some are not.

“So you can’t ever say it’s black and white why an officer asks for an extension, but they don’t simply ask for an extension ‘can I have an extra four months because I’m going to sit on your case because it’s simply not a priority’, that’s just not the case.”

Councillor Kay Burley (Labour, Kempston Central & East Ward) asked if the reason was conveyed to the applicant.

“Because if the applicant’s sitting there waiting for the planning officer to make the determination and the planning officer is waiting for somebody from highways, then the applicant needs to know that, don’t they?

“Even if you can’t negotiate it at least the information needs to be imparted to the applicant, because as councillors, I can’t speak for the other three councillors that are here, but we get the aggro when that’s happened.

“Whilst I can see what the situation is, the applicant gets cross if they don’t actually know what’s happening.”

Ms Laver said: “There are times where an officer will have the opportunity to update their applicants.

“If they updated their applicant every single week, every single day, they’d never get any work done.

“You can appreciate if they’re carrying a hundred cases and there are various reasons why they’re not looking at that case that day, because they’ve set aside report writing that day.

“They simply won’t have the opportunity to contact somebody to say ‘I’m still waiting on a highways response’, for example.

“So, they can’t be reactive all of the time, we have the planning portal where most applicants who use an agent check to see what comes in as soon as we’ve had responses.

“It’s incumbent on applicants themselves to also check that, because if that advice has come in from a consultee requesting more information they can, at their fingertips, see what that response is.

“They don’t need a planning officer to contact them, if the response isn’t there, we still haven’t received it.

“But in reality, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all of the cases, and for all of the various reasons why something’s not being determined within that time frame, it’s simply not achievable.

“We could spend the entire entirety of our working day just sending updates, and sometimes you just have to go into silent mode for a couple of days so you can actually get reports written on the ones which have come back, so you can actually get some decisions out.

“Instead of just sending chases or responses all of the time.

“Nothing’s perfect, we could do better, we can always improve, but we simply have to be realistic as well,” she said.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter