Private planning costs soar as council struggles to meet demand
Richard Youle local democracy reporter
Carmarthenshire Council spent more than £200,000 on private companies to process planning applications and enforcement cases over the last four years because it was struggling to do the work.
The new head of the planning service, Rhodri Griffiths, said there have been significant improvements in recent months and that it was not using private companies at present.
Planning officers determine numerous applications a year, with planning committees made up of councillors often responsible for larger schemes. Enforcement officers, meanwhile, look into breaches of planning control.
The council, in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, said it spent £182,123 and £4,078 on two firms – Prospero Planning and Asbri Planning – to process planning applications between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2022. It paid Randstad Solutions Ltd £24,892 in relation to enforcement casework.
Mr Griffiths, who took up his head of place and sustainability post in January this year, said a council report a couple of years ago raised concerns and led to the authority asking Audit Wales to review the planning department.
Audit Wales’ subsequent report, published last summer, highlighted many concerns – particularly around an inability to deal with a growing backlog. In March 2021, there were 761 planning enforcement cases waiting to be dealt with, and 847 outstanding planning applications – some dating back more than five years.
“Significant and long-standing performance issues in the planning service need to be urgently addressed to help support delivery of the council’s ambitions,” said the Audit Wales report, which also identified development management weaknesses.
The council set up an intervention board to address the issues and work through a number of recommendations, which Mr Griffiths said have almost all been implemented.
He said the enforcement team had, as of early July, around 340 outstanding cases to investigate – a big drop from 761 the previous March. A lot of historic cases, he said, had been closed. He said there were around 530 planning applications to be determined, compared to the 847 figure eight months earlier.
“There are public documents that show the improvement,” he said.
Mr Griffiths said a new team called the planning hub had made a major impact. It takes planning-related phone calls, freeing up planning and enforcement officers to focus more on their bread-and-butter work.
He added that the enforcement team had been restructured, and an extra focus more generally on performance management was in place.
“I now have data on a real-time basis, so I can see bottlenecks,” said Mr Griffiths, who used to be a senior Welsh Government civil servant.
More staff have also been appointed, although councils generally are in need of qualified planning officers and specialists such as planning ecologists.
Carmarthenshire’s planning department is also dealing with a higher proportion of planning applications and enforcement cases within Welsh Government target times than previously.
The compliance figure for planning applications was up to 93%, said Mr Griffiths, in the most recent quarter.
A planning enforcement statement has been published by the council, which helps the public understand the subject and sets out various service level targets.
Swansea Council, in response to the same Freedom of Information questions as those sent to Carmarthenshire, said it hadn’t spent any money on private companies to process planning applications and enforcement cases.
Swansea’s most recent planning application backlog stood at 715, while it had 662 new and ongoing enforcement cases.
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