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The construction site at the end of West Hill Road in St Leonards - questions have been asked about how development could begin 28 years after planning permission was granted.

The construction site at the end of West Hill Road in St Leonards – questions have been asked about how development could begin 28 years after planning permission was granted.

Council draws fire over planning charges

Labour-dominated Hastings Borough Council has decided to introduce charges for planning queries, though it has not set a date for introducing them. The move has prompted a raft of criticism from other political parties and groups with interests in planning issues. Nick Terdre reports.

Following a review of its planning service, Hastings Borough Council decided at its cabinet committee meeting in early September to introduce charges for development control queries – that is, queries to do with planning applications and permissions. It claims the move is necessary as the large number of enquiries makes it difficult for planning officers to cope with their workload and achieve performance targets.

£50 per enquiry?

The amount that will be charged has not yet been decided – the figure of £50 per enquiry has been bandied around – HBC says it is likely to take the form of a scale of fees, depending on the complexity of the query and the amount of time needed to resolve it. “Charging for queries is clearly something we are going to have to do, in line with most other councils who are already doing so,” said Cllr Kim Forward, lead member for housing. Rother charges £54 for general planning enquiries.

Charges will not be introduced until the level of planning information provided online has been improved – the council acknowledges that it is currently insufficient. In fact the difficulties of finding planning information have largely been compounded by its own website reorganizations.

“Tax payers . . will have a financial penalty”

Among those opposing the introduction of charges are the Hastings and Rye Liberal Democrats, whose spokeswoman Xan Brooker told HOT, “What a mess Hastings Planning Department continues to be. Liberal Democrats oppose Labour’s planning charges completely. More work will be created along the way and taxpayers who have genuine questions will have a financial penalty. This is going to create a false economy…

“This is not what happens in Liberal Democrat Eastbourne. The Lib Dem Leader of Eastbourne Council, David Tutt, takes the view that this kind of charging both discourages development and often adds to workload as applications which do come in without seeking this early advice are refused and have to be reworked and resubmitted.”

“Our views have been ignored”

Chris Lewcock, chair of Hastings Urban Design Group, says the group submitted comments to the council ahead of the decision but “…sadly it appears that our views have been ignored. We welcome long overdue investment in upgrading website access and the idea of setting up a design panel – both areas where other local authorities have been well ahead of Hastings. We also welcome essential staff recruitment.

“However, we are very concerned about the introduction of charges for routine planning enquiries and that councillors have just nodded this through.  It is unlikely to be cost-effective and will just tangle planning officers and administrators in more complexity as they discuss who should or shouldn’t be charged. It won’t go to the root of the problem which has been under-staffing and poor web-based facilities. Until those have been sorted out… it seems at the least to be premature to impose a charge on local residents making routine enquiries of their planning service.”

Lynne Okines of Save Ecclesbourne Glen group questions the claim that planning department performance is being detrimentally affected by the number of queries. She recalls that only last year the department was ranked “within the top ten of the Planning Advisory Service’s table for planning performance and excellence.”

“Planning implementation plan had been implemented”

And when opposition councillors called for a review of the planning department late last year, the request “was denied because of the Council’s performance targets and Planning Advisory Service’s endorsement that the ‘Planning Implementation Improvement Plan’ had been implemented successfully.” It is not SEG’s view that the performance of the planning department is to be commended, but it is strange that the council, only months after saying how well it was doing, now claims it is unable to function properly, Mrs Okines says.

The way queries are handled is itself a source of problems, she says. While the council complains of the large number of Freedom of Information requests, it is often the case that inquirers resort to FOIs precisely because they cannot get a proper answer to a straightforward enquiry: “FOIs are raised as a last resort in order to try and get answers.”

Measures to improve the planning service

But again the planners’ response often fails to settle the enquiry: “The information, relayed after 20 days of waiting, is normally standard copied text that the request for information cannot be granted because of confidentiality, third party interest or commercially sensitive information. The responses are rarely conclusive and do not satisfactorily address or answer the query.”

At its meeting, the cabinet approved other measures to improve the planning service, including appointing two additional members of staff, creating a self-certification form, giving staff further training in areas of conservation and listed buildings and introducing a report template to ensure reports are robust and thorough in content.

 

This article was amended by Nick Terdre on 17 September 2016.

Posted 17:20 Thursday, Sep 15, 2016 In: Home Ground

3 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. ms. doubtfire

    I think Mr. Davis has got the wrong end of the stick here – developers always have to pay to submit planning applications and it is obvious that this new draconian proposal is not to sting the developer – it is to silence the hordes of residents who are sick and tired of seeing planning applications given consent when it is patently clear these applications should not receive planning consent.

    Thus the council reckons that the charging system will prevent these good citizens from submitting queries to what appear to be some very iffy applications.
    This is another slap in the face for the transparency and democracy we hear so much about from this council.

    Comment by ms. doubtfire — Tuesday, Oct 4, 2016 @ 16:30

  2. ken davis

    When, oh when, oh when, will Hastings Councillors and officers begin to have some understanding of the design and development process?
    Design is an iterative and cyclical process wherein the more information (usually in terms of planning constraints) is known as early as possible the the design can progress with more rationale. Charging to say clarify what an acceptable back to back distance may be on a new house to an existing property or something similar only encourages a developer to try his luck and make an application only to be told well down the line what the unwritten rule is. This process causes endless amounts of extra work for the planners themselves! The fact that they cannot see this constantly amazes me.
    Good design does only come out of repetitive dialogue between the interested players and yet charging needlessly blocks such debate.It is thus no wonder that poor quality design solutions emerge and conflict arises. Bonkers, bonkers, bonkers!!!

    Comment by ken davis — Wednesday, Sep 21, 2016 @ 21:10

  3. ms. doubtfire

    This has to be a really clever confidence trick because no matter what you pay you will never get the answer to the question you have asked.

    Comment by ms. doubtfire — Monday, Sep 19, 2016 @ 13:32

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