Planning applications outsourced by St Albans council

St Albans City & District Council

St Albans City & District Council - Credit: Archant

The combination of an “unprecedented” demand for planning services and shortage of staff has forced the district council to seek urgent help from an external firm to process applications.

But that action has brought a rebuke from opposition councillors who warn it means more money being taken from council coffers, and calls into question accountability.

At a recent St Albans district council cabinet meeting, councillors were told that Brian Barber Associates (BBA) had been engaged to process 100 householder planning applications.

A council report said there have been “difficulties with retention, recruitment and selection of staff over the last six months.

“The on-going recruitment process requires significant management time and has had an impact on performance.”

Chairman Cllr Julian Daly explained: “Recruiting the right quality of staff is proving very difficult.”

He said BBA, “are planning folk we use a lot on appeals, and are familiar with what we do.”

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After the meeting, Labour group leader Cllr Martin Leach said he understood St Albans had among the largest number of applications in the country.

But he said it would be “better to have more staff than outside consultants” dealing with proposed schemes, so the council’s democratic “hold” on bids was not jeopardised.

Lib Dem spokesman for planning Cllr Dave Yates said: “Whilst I’m pleased to see that the administration is finally doing something to clear the backlog of planning applications they have allowed to build up, I’m disappointed this involves yet more external spending on planning.”

Tracy Harvey, the council’s head of planning, said a record number of applications had recently been submitted.

She said BBA had been engaged to handle “many of the simpler householder applications” to help the council maintain high levels of customer service, and make prompt decisions.

Ms Harvey added: “BBA’s role is limited to processing these applications and making a recommendation in terms of the decision.

“Whether or not the application is granted will remain a decision to be made either by me if the application is delegated to officers, or by councillors if the application is called-in to a planning committee.”

Since 2009/10, there has been a 54 per cent increase in the number of planning applications received by the council each year, reaching 3,521 in 2013/14.