PROBLEMS with how Powys County Council process planning applications and act to enforce breaches of planning legislation, have been found by Audit Wales.
Audit Wales is an organisation whose purpose is to assure and explain how public money is being used in Wales.
Following a review last year, on Monday, May 15, Audit Wales published a damning report on the council’s planning department work.
Audit Wales have provided a list of nine recommendations that they expect the authority to address over the next year.
As part of the review Audit Wales found problems in the way the council processes planning applications as well as their approach to enforcing breaches of planning legislation.
In the past the council had dedicated planning officers work on either processing planning applications or in pursuing enforcement action for planning breaches.
But due to restructures in the planning department the role of processing applications and enforcement have been combined with all staff expected to be able to do both.
Audit Wales said “The service acknowledges that development management cases take priority, which negatively impacts on its enforcement performance.
“Enforcement is not seen as an equal priority it is evident that it is not seen as strategically important.”
When it comes to processing planning applications Audit Wales say they found planning officers often chasing the applicant and their agents for “missing essential information.”
Audit Wales said: “Missing information is a long-standing issue for the council which senior managers have not successfully addressed.
“Whilst the content and quality of submitted planning applications is not within the control of the planning service, the service can manage how officers should respond to these applications.”
They add that there is no guidance in place across the department telling planning officers how to respond to these problems when they crop up.
Audit Wales explain that some officers “engage” in lengthy talks to get the information they need which impacts on performance figures and caseload.
According to the report, some planning officers have tried to introduce a way of dealing with this situation.
They do this by giving agents and applicants “one opportunity” to provide the missing information before asking them to withdraw the application or decide to refuse.
Audit Wales said: “Not having a clear directive is counter-productive to providing an efficient and effective service.
“This points to a fractured planning service with no consistent approach to issues.”
Audit Wales also point out that some agents and applicants contact senior managers “directly” about their application.
Audit Wales said: “It is vital for the planning service’s integrity and for public trust in the council, that the service not only operates impartially, it must also be seen to do so.”
In response to feedback from Audit Wales the council has set up a service improvement board to address the issues raised in the report.
Cabinet member for a connected Powys which includes the planning portfolio, Liberal Democrat Cllr Jake Berriman said: “We full accept the findings of this review.
“I am completely committed to using this report to help put things right and to work towards having one of the most highly regarded planning services in Wales.