A staffing crisis is engulfing Kirklees Council’s planning department – and a seven-point action plan has been drawn up.
Local developers and small builders have complained over excessive delays to the planning process which is impacting their businesses.
Now a report to the council’s Personnel Committee on Monday June 26 has laid bare the root causes and explains why there’s no quick fix solution.
The report says a national shortage of planners and engineers has led to “fierce” competition from councils and the private sector.
Staff turnover at Kirklees is high and morale is low and a third of the staff have been with the council for less than two years.
Competition means better pay is on offer elsewhere, particularly for more senior staff, and the council introduced a “retention payment scheme” in a bid to keep staff, which is costing around £230,000 a year.
Planners in Kirklees have greater workloads and more stress and the report adds: “Kirklees has a reputation of being a challenging place to be a town planner compared with other districts where there is seen to be less pressure and less opposition to development from the public.”
Workloads for individual officers are high and Kirklees deals with many more planning applications every year than neighbouring councils.
Kirklees is the 20th largest planning authority in the country and in 2022 had 2,450 planning applications. That compared to just 1,100 in Calderdale and 1,550 in Wakefield.
And that Kirklees total doesn’t include around 1,000 other kinds of applications such as tree works, appeals and legal agreements.
The report says “customer satisfaction” is low due to the length of time it takes to deal with applications.
The report says: “The Government’s position is that planning authorities should be largely funded through planning application fees, although overall the hours taken to validate, assess, consider, negotiate and amend planning applications is not covered by the fees received.
“This makes the Planning Service extremely reliant on external, macro-economic conditions. In challenging economic times (like now) when the number of larger applications falls, income levels drop rapidly.
“This means we are unable to afford to fill vacancies that do occur without overspending. The budget target for fee income in 2022-23 was £2.4m, over which only around £1.3m was achieved.
“The service is therefore holding any vacancies it can to reduce staffing costs (by far the biggest expenditure). The result is higher caseloads for existing staff and slower determination of applications.”
The council has drawn up a seven-point action plan:
· Staff retention payments: The retention payment scheme was introduced to rebalance the disparity in pay and to make Kirklees a more attractive employment location for professional planners;
· Governance reforms: The service is examining ways to make the decision-making process quicker and more efficient, thereby releasing officer time;
· Civic Centre 1 re-opening: Bringing staff back into a 50-50 hybrid way of working between office based and remote working will be a positive step to ensuring staff are appropriately supported;
· Local Plan review: The current Local Plan is required to be reviewed by the end of 2024. It is expected that the Government’s impending reforms to planning will clarify the new requirements for setting housing and job targets by the summer 2023. This will help the council understand what is required to produce a future Local Plan.
· Staff welfare: The council is a good employer with opportunities to learn, train and succeed and there is a ‘grow your own’ strategy to developing staff;
· Effective consultees: The council is working with other council departments to streamline working practices;
· Attracting investment: The planning department will work with other council departments to encourage development in the district and engage with architects, consultants, local builders and others.
In conclusion, the report says: “There is no one single solution to improve service delivery and staff retention.
“Pay is currently the biggest barrier to attracting experienced staff or retaining individuals and uncertainty in budget forecasting weighs on staff when they are deciding where to work.
“Public participation in the planning system is a key component and is not an area which should be diluted or discouraged.
“However, changing the narrative around the benefits of new development, regeneration, house building, and job creation would significantly help to improve the attractiveness of working in Kirklees.”