Leeds Cannot Carry out All of its Statutory Planning Functions Because of a Lack of Funding

Yorkshire Evening Post

Leeds City Council’s planning department does not have enough money to carry out all of its duties, a senior figure within the authority has claimed.

David Feeney, the council’s chief planning officer, also said a backlog of applications and confusing messages from the government over reforms were among the service’s biggest hurdles.

It comes amid a £16m hole in the council’s finances, which has led to curbs on non-essential spending.

Local authorities are responsible for processing and deciding on all planning applications, including for large housing developments that spark opposition from communities.

But a post-Covid rise in planning applications and a lack of cash and staff have left many councils struggling to do this kind of work quickly and efficiently.

At a meeting of the council’s audit committee on Monday, Mr Feeney outlined the difficulties his service is facing.

Asked by Labour councillor Jane Dowson if the planning service had “enough money to hit all the functions you have as a department,” Mr Feeney replied: “That’s a good question. I would say ‘no’, although we are obviously doing our best with resources we have available to us.”

He later added: “The challenge we’ve had in recent years has been the backlog arising through Covid – we had a very large number of applications through the system.

“In parallel with that we’ve had changes to national planning policy, which is seeking to deregulate parts of the planning system, with the intention of trying to streamline things.

“That is challenging because often those national changes aren’t communicated in a way where the operational detail is very clear.

“We have found, at times, ourselves inventing processes to meet those requirements which haven’t been clearly set out.”

Mr Feeney said that the government was now proposing to digitise the planning system further, which ministers believe will speed up decision-making.

But he said this would spark “challenges across the council in being able to deliver the infrastructure we need.”

The council currently has a £16m gap on its balance sheet it needs to plug by the end of March.

Amid growing energy costs and pressures from inflation, the authority recently banned staff from working paid overtime and has halted most of its recruitment.

Unlike many other local planning authorities, Leeds lets developers submit pre-applications, to allow feedback to be given before the final plans are put forward for consideration.

In theory, this is supposed to reduce complications and delays later in the process.

But asked by Councillor Dowson if the planning service was “vulnerable” to legal challenges from applicants who wait too long for a decision to be made, Mr Feeney said: “It’s a valid point you’ve made.

“And that’s a risk to the council, in terms of finances and reputational damage if we don’t meet our performance targets.

“It’s incumbent on the planning service to meet national performance targets and I don’t want those targets to drop.”

But he added: “I’m confident there are enough checks and balances in the system we have in Leeds, with the level of scrutiny and oversight we have, to try to mitigate all those risks.”

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