THE PLANNING department at Pembrokeshire County Council is struggling against reduced budgets, staffing shortages and determination deadlines, a review has highlighted.
The planning department – which includes enforcement, development, conservation and rights of way as well as planning application determination – has dropped to 18th out of 25 in Wales according to a review report.
Members of the services overview and scrutiny held a lengthy discussion on the review at its meeting on Tuesday (November 17) and heard that ideally an extra £250,000 would be needed to bring the service back to top performance.
A £100,000 ‘Growth budget’ was agreed in March but delayed due to Covid 19.
It is a statutory function of the local authority, dealing with around 1,200 applications a year, but with staff reduced from 73 full-time equivalent to 48 since 2012, cabinet member for planning Cllr Jon Harvey said.
He added that it was a “vital service both to the residents of Pembrokeshire and developers” and improvements were being made within the “resource constraints we have” to ensure a responsive service.
Director of community services Dr Steven Jones added that there had been a “deterioration of speed in deciding applications” but the quality of decisions was robust, when looking at the low number of upheld appeal decisions.
He added that the loss of around 35 per cent of staff over the last eight years would impact the “significant service”.
“If you take that level of resources out of a service it’s going to suffer,” he added, while head of planning David Popplewell reminded councillors that staffing was the main budget requirement for the service with positions left vacant to meet budget cut requirements.
Recruitment for two vacant posts was due to start this month although questions about pay grades were raised and the committee heard that in Pembrokeshire a planning officer would be a grade lower than in Ceredigion, a pay difference of £4,000, and in some cases two grades lower than Carmarthenshire, an £8,000 difference.
A disparity in pay was addressed by social services said Cllr Tony Wilcox, and the same could be done for planning posts, with members agreeing that the upcoming budget setting must take into consideration the need for a “efficient” planning service.
Chairman of the planning committee Cllr Jacob Williams said he was pleased that senior managers “acknowledged that the planning department does have issues” and welcomed the news of recruitment.
While Cllr Stephen Joseph said that the issues went back a number of years adding that they should not be used as an “excuse for not performing properly.”