Executive Member Portfolio Update (Agenda Item 6)
Elizabeth Gould, Executive Member for Planning, Building Control & Housing, has been invited to attend the meeting to update Members on key ongoing issues and policies within her portfolio and to answer any questions.
Elizabeth Gould, Executive Member for Planning, Building Control & Housing, provided the Commission with an update on her Portfolio.
A major planning application for the Thetford Sustainable Urban Extension (Thetford SUE) would be considered at a Special Planning Committee meeting to be held in the Carnegie Rooms in Thetford on Friday 4 April 2014. Due to its significance it was considered proper that the meeting should be held in Thetford. The agenda would be published well in advance of the meeting to give all parties an opportunity to engage in the process. A site visit had already been held and Members had also received a presentation from the applicants, following the previous Planning Committee meeting, which had been confined to matters of fact and had been held in open forum. It would be a significant decision and all Members were invited to participate at the Special Planning Committee meeting.
As part of the Capita contract monitoring a fresh set of Critical and Key Performance Indicators had been agreed with the aim of ensuring that decisions were made in a timely manner to guard against the potential for fee reimbursement to applicants. Other indicators had been introduced which monitored the quality of appeal decisions; improved the speed of determining simpler householder applications; improved the speed of pursuing enforcement action when expedient; and secured the delivery of the Local Plan to agreed timescales.
The speed, efficiency and responsiveness of Enforcement had long been a thorny subject. Since the recruitment of the new Enforcement Team Leader there had been significant improvement. The Planning Committee and other Members now received regular Enforcement updates and it was the Executive Member’s view that the service had improved substantially.
The service continued to deliver on its performance and retain its customer base. Service delivery was essential to retain market share as competition within the Building Control market was very active. There had been numerous calls for ‘out of hours’ dangerous structure provision during the recent bad weather. The team had met and exceeded all of its performance targets up to January 2014.
During the summer of 2012 the Housing function had been reviewed and restructured into two main areas: Private Sector Enforcement and Options. Options included homelessness, allocations and advice, whilst Private Sector Enforcement included housing standards, Gypsies and Travellers and housing grants.
By streamlining processes a net reduction in staff had been achieved. The housing enabling function had also been moved from Housing to sit within Planning.
The intent of the review had been the creation of an Options Hub, utilising new IT information handling to allow improved information flow and the identification and realisation of cashable savings.
A number of new officers were recruited to the Options side and staff received regular training to ensure effective operational capability and to keep resilience. Two Occupational therapy staff from Adult Social Services were now co-located within the Housing Team.
Several projects had been running including Empty Homes, a joint programme with ARP which had produced a net reduction of 216 empty dwellings over the year resulting in £1.2million in New Homes Bonus and had gained the Team the Breckland Pride award for Project of the Year.
Other projects included a licensing scheme for Homes of Multiple Occupation (HMOs); a project to reduce temporary accommodation costs; work towards a paperless office; and managing the Housing Register to ensure that those in most need got offered homes faster.
The greatest risk to the new structure was that the IT improvements had not been implemented yet. The current hardware was reaching the end of its operational life and struggling to run the latest specifications of software. Future efficiencies would not be achieved without IT improvements and those were in the pipeline.
In conclusion the introduction of the new structure had involved exceptional commitment by staff which had been reflected in the considerable success that the team had demonstrated in its first year, achieving Team of the Year, Employee of the Year and Trainee of the Year on top of the Project of the Year award.
The Chairman thanked the Executive Member and advised Members that there would be further details in the Housing and Capita items later on the Agenda.
Councillor Sharpe asked whether there would be a new policy on Gypsy and Traveller sites. The Deputy Planning Manager said that the allocation of new sites was being looked at through the Local Plan. The first consultation was expected later in the year. Due to the duty to co-operate and the requirement to provide a shared evidence base the timetable for the consultation had moved back to later in the year.
The Chairman noted that the Parish Councils were expecting to be consulted in April/May and if the date had slipped they needed to be advised of that as soon as possible.
The Deputy Planning Manager explained that the new timetable was due to be presented to the Local Plan Working Group in May.
Councillor Sharpe asked whether the caseload of the Enforcement staff had come down. The Director of Planning & Business Manager confirmed that it had. A review of all cases had been carried out and many had been closed. However, the number of new cases and work on Planning Contravention and Enforcement Notices continued to stretch the team. New Planning Enforcement software was being introduced which would have significant benefits, including the ability to generate standard letters automatically.
With regard to the Housing Register, Councillor Sharpe asked why there had been such a drastic reduction in the number of people in the Gold Band.
The Executive Member explained that an exercise had been carried out to contact all the people on the list that had not bid on any properties. That had resulted in people leaving the list. Often people’s circumstances changed and they no longer required housing, but did not think to take themselves off the Register.
Councillor Joel asked whether the Thetford Sue application, if approved, would have an effect on the Council’s Five Year Housing Land Supply. The Deputy Planning Manager acknowledged that it was a large scheme for up to 5,000 dwellings but the Government only allowed dwellings that would be built in the next five years to be included in the Five Year Housing Land Supply. Only a small portion of the Thetford SUE was likely to be developed in that time.
Councillor R Richmond thanked the Director of Planning & Business Manager for the regular Planning Updates he provided, which were easy to read and understand. He also congratulated the Housing Team on their Empty Homes success. However, with regard to Enforcement he said that the public were amazed that the Council did not do more and it was difficult to make them understand the reasons behind that.
The Director of Planning & Business Manager agreed that it was a source of misunderstanding. People carrying out development without permission were not committing an offence. The offence was in not complying with an Enforcement Notice and there was a significant process to go through to reach that stage.
The Vice-Chairman thanked the Executive Member for her very positive and upbeat report. However, he thought that people would not agree with the housing analysis. It was a big issue and there were harrowing examples of the lack of housing or of poor quality housing or of rental prices that had not been addressed. It was a bleak picture. Having empty homes was morally wrong and some homes in Thetford had been empty for up to ten years. He asked how many empty homes had been identified and not brought back into use and he asked whether the Council used all of its available powers to bring empty properties back into use.
The Principal Housing Officer agreed that having empty properties caused indignation, but some empty properties were needed for the market to operate. Their project had targeted the long-term empty properties and there were now less than 500 long term empty properties in the District, which was the lowest figure for 23 years. They were doing very well considering the available resources. The aim was to identify those that could be got back into use. The Council’s powers had been strengthened by changes to Council Tax rules which meant that empty properties could be charged at a higher rate. The other power available to the Council was in the form of an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO) however, they were difficult to use and only recently had numbers reached three figures for such Orders issued across the entire Country. The Team sought to persuade and guide landlords and that was helped by having a small pot of money for grant aid. Other Councils had used Compulsory Purchase as a tool, but that did not make sense in Breckland as the Council was not a stockholding authority.
Councillor Gilbert was dismayed about the lack of powers to enforce planning conditions. The Chairman agreed and said he received frequent complaints from residents. The Planning Committee arrived at a decision and attached conditions to permissions which would not otherwise have been granted. Those conditions often applied to landscaping. If applicants then refused to comply with the conditions imposed it made residents very cross as they had to live with the consequences.
The Director of Planning & Business Manager pointed out that 99% of people did comply with planning conditions the problem was the few people that knew how to play the system and could stretch the process over years before actually having to comply. It was difficult for neighbours and there was no easy answer. The Government was looking at the system and had made some minor changes to make Stop Notices slightly easier, but there had been no fundamental changes. He asked Members to take heart as the department had focussed on enforcement and it was still a priority area. He would provide more details in the Capita update later on the agenda.
The Chairman thanked the Executive Member for her update.