Outgoing chief defends St Albans Planning Department

The last few months have not been kind to the planning department at St Albans district council in the Herts Advertiser, with stories reporting a barrage of complaints from businesses and a tough line in editorial comments. Our offer of a public platform to put the council’s side of the story has been taken up by Heather Cheesbrough, recently departed head of planning and building services, who took the opportunity to reflect on her time running the department and highlight some of the improvements she has introduced during her time.

ST Albans has the heaviest planning application workload of any district council in the country. In spite of the recession, our workload has increased by as much as 30 per cent during the last three years. This sounds a bit counter-intuitive in a recession, I know. But people are eager to live here and developers are keen to invest. There are also plenty of wealthy local people who are choosing to extend their homes rather than move in what is a difficult housing market.

That’s quite understandable, but it has presented some major challenges for the council’s planning team. As I move on to a new job, the Herts Advertiser has invited me to reflect on my time here as head of planning.

This has been a time of massive change for the council’s planning department. We needed to improve customer service and change our culture if we were to become the integrated, innovative and customer facing team we aspire to be. We also needed to restructure our team to cope with a staggering increase in our workload. I’m the first to admit we are still not perfect. However, the changes achieved over the last couple of years have been transforming.

St Albans has over the past year determined 98 per cent of all applications, and 86 per cent of major applications within 26 weeks. This places us within the top third of all planning authorities in the country. This is a major improvement to where we were before, and is borne out by the massive increase in compliments we have had in the past year.

The drive to be more efficient, effective, open and transparent was greatly assisted by the migration from a paper-based system of processing planning applications to one that was fully electronic. This allows residents to access planning histories and applications via the internet and to view progress on applications from the comfort of their own homes. Speed and openness has been increased by posting consultation responses, a feature of many planning applications, online.

The huge jump in planning applications has made resourcing very challenging within a context of public sector budget restraint. Our more sophisticated approach to gathering and monitoring data has helped. Our new system has made the task of allocating the right officers with the right skills to deal with the right applications, much better.

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Planning can be complex and confusing to professionals, let alone householders who want to build an extension or object to a proposal. Underpinning all the improvements we have made is a commitment to improving customer care and communications. We know we need to do better still, but its worth pointing out the huge improvements there have been recently.

We have overhauled the planning web pages to make it easier to find information and view applications. The launch of our on-line GIS system means that people can research Conservation Areas, Listed Buildings and Tree Preservation Orders. You can now find comprehensive planning histories for any property or area in the district online.

Training and development on planning issues has been a key element of the improvements as well. This helps build up expertise in the planning case officer team, releasing specialist officers to concentrate on the more complex and major applications.

Great efforts have been made to speed up and streamline the technical support team who receive and validate all planning applications and are often the first port of call for planning enquiries.

To be able to validate an application, it is crucial that they have the right documentation, with forms properly completed and the right fee supplied. We get a huge number of incomplete applications which are a terrible waste of tax-payer-funded officer time. In time we hope to introduce an accreditation system for planning agents to help improve the quality of documentation presented.

We now have drop in sessions for the public at the Civic offices every Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning, with two dedicated telephone lines for advice on Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings. Pre-application meetings are offered to applicants, to provide focused advice on specific development proposals.

Our new partnership with the University of Hertfordshire is helping us to review and explain the significance of the district’s 5,000 locally listed buildings to the public.

There is no doubt that massive change over the past three years in national planning policy has made understanding and working with the new system challenging. Our new draft Strategic Local Plan responds to the new system. It has been informed through the four major consultation exercises undertaken in the district over the past six years. It is now set for its final stage before submission to the Secretary of State next spring.

This is an extremely important document that will help the district develop over the next couple of decades in a sustainable way. I am thankful to my team for getting us to this point, which is a major achievement.

The first project coming out of the new Public Realm Strategy will come to fruition in December with the installation of new maps and visitor information at St Albans station and in the city centre. We have also worked with local community groups, such as the Look! St Albans initiative, to prepare design guidance for the city centre. We also hope to be able to redevelop the run down and high profile central area of St Albans where the Alban Arena, the police station and the council offices are located.

As I move to my new role in Hounslow, I can report that the planning team in St Albans is in good shape. With the largest district planning workload in the country it needs to be. They are a fine, professional, passionate and dedicated team and it’s been my absolute honour to work with them.

It is very easy to knock the council if you don’t get what you want from your planning application, and it is not at all easy for public servants to defend themselves. I thank the Herts Advertiser for giving me this opportunity to do so on their behalf.