Help at hand for planners

Damien Wilson
Damien Wilson

A COUNCIL’S planning department has enlisted the help of a team of experts to help speed up the decision making process when it comes to major applications.

Hartlepool Borough Council has invited what is known as a Peer Challenge, a team of experts in the field of planning, to come to town next month.

It follows new measures introduced by the Government aimed at improving the speed and quality of decision making, with the threat that poorly performing local authority planning services would be placed in special measures.

If that were to happen, an applicant could choose that the Planning Inspectorate rather than the local council deals with their application, which effectively means decision making powers and planning fee income are taken away from the council.

Hartlepool Borough Council was among the worst in the North-East, with only 32.4 per cent of major applications being decided within 13 weeks and any council that falls below 30 per cent risks being put in special measures.

Because Hartlepool was “hovering dangerously close” to the threshold, officers contacted the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) looking for support to improve performance.

Support so far has included officers and councillors attending workshops and Damien Wilson, the council’s assistant director for regeneration, also applied for funding to cover a Planning Peer Challenge, which was approved.

It will take place between February 18 and 20 and the PAS is subsidising the entire cost of the Peer Challenge programme.

The council’s regeneration services committee will meet tomorrow to discuss the visit.

Mr Wilson said in a report: “The Peer Challenge process presents an opportunity to focus on a broad range of areas all of which are important in the determination of planning applications and should therefore be beneficial to future performance and help further reduce the risk of being placed in special measures.”

Mr Wilson said since the original figures were produced Hartlepool Council has improved to the point where there is now less risk of being put into special measures.

But a report added that the threshold is to rise to 40 per cent so said it is not the “time to be complacent”.

The Peer Challenge team will review the role of the planning service, the relationship between officers and members and the leadership of the planning service as part of their investigation.

A follow up, review of progress and action planning, will be arranged for around four weeks after the visit.

A report said the council is expected to supply the relevant documents, arrange the necessary interviews and be available to answer further questions and enquiries.

The council’s regeneration services committee is due to meet on Thursday, January 16, at 9.30am at the Civic Centre in Victoria Road.