Conservatives blame budget cuts for ‘worrying’ South Cambs planning stats

A council’s “worrying” planning performance was slammed by the Conservative opposition, which blamed budget cuts for what it called underperformance.

The South Cambridgeshire District Council Tory opposition has criticised the Lib Dem administration’s performance when it came to planning.

The Liberal Dems however said it was improving processes it inherited from the Conservatives in 2018, is providing the funding the planning service needs, and that it is meeting statutory performance targets.

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It also said the Conservatives are “misrepresenting” the position on funding for the planning service.

The council is meanwhile facing the threat of a legal challenge from campaign group Fews Lane Consortium, which claims the council has produced “misleading” figures on planning performance and that it has not complied with government targets for deciding applications.

‘We have repetitively raised our concerns about planning’

The Lib Dems have defended the methodology they used to record planning performance data, and says its statistics have been compiled in accordance with the relevant standards and guidance.

The government expects local authorities to decide planning applications “as quickly as possible”, and provides targets for councils, usually between eight and 16 weeks depending on the level of complexity, while allowing for extensions agreed in writing with the applicant.

For the second quarter of 2020, the council claims 85 per cent of planning applications were determined within the government targets.

But an independent audit found “the majority of applications were not approved by the statutory target determination date,” albeit in the majority of those cases an extension was agreed afterwards.

The dispute in South Cambridgeshire has arisen over whether the council is correct to record planning applications as decided within the government target periods if it agrees a time extension with the applicant after the original statutory target determination date has passed.

A government document says the authority “should” agree the extension within the initial target period. The council says that needs to be understood within the context of other government guidance.

The Fews Lane Consortium has said the council’s planning performance when it comes to resolving planning applications within target times puts it at risk of being designated an underperforming local planning authority, which the council denies.

The leader of the Conservative opposition group, Cllr Heather Williams, said the situation is a consequence of Lib Dem decisions and funding of the planning service.

She said: “Whatever the outcome of any legal challenges made, the planning performance figures at South Cambs are worrying.

“In 2019 we called for more openness and transparency over planning performance but the Lib Dems voted it down.

“Since then, we have repetitively raised our concerns about planning with the Lib Dem administration which they have dismissed and batted away.

“This situation is a consequence of the Lib Dems decisions, they cut planning by nearly £1 million – 17.5 per cent – last year.

“We warned that this would have consequences but they refused to listen.

“While there was an increase this year it is not enough to even restore the cut they made and it’s too little too late.

“The damage has clearly been done with the department under resourced and under funded. Things need to change at South Cambs urgently.”

Cllr Richard Williams, a Conservative, said: “When the rules say you ‘should’ do something but the evidence shows that in most cases you are not doing it, it is not clear that you are complying with the rules.”

He is calling for more information to clarify if the “if the problems revealed in the first report were caused by the pandemic or are symptomatic of a wider problem”.

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‘Planning team are doing an outstanding job in these circumstances’

The council’s lead cabinet member for planning policy and delivery, Cllr Tumi Hawkins, said: “The Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service [with Cambridge City Council] continues to meet the statutory performance targets as available to view on the government website.

“We initiated a review of the planning delegation scheme by the independent Planning Advisory Service and are already implementing some of the recommendations and have improved transparency of the process we inherited from the Conservatives.

“Over the last three years, we have provided the planning service with the funding it needs including provisions for potential legal challenges that did not need to be used.

“In addition, there was an underspend due to the number of staff vacancies for which we have been trying to recruit in the face of a national shortage of planners.

“Those amounts were not carried forward into this year’s accounts of the council, which I explained to Cllr Heather Williams at Full Council in May so I am disappointed she is now misrepresenting the situation and undermining the service.

“The planning team are doing an outstanding job in these circumstances especially given the complications of remote working. The service has in the last month won three industry awards recognising their hard work and dedication. I am extremely grateful to them and they have my full support.”

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