Planning service continues to improve in South Somerset as positive actions make a difference
Significant progress continues to be made to improve the planning process at South Somerset District Council (SSDC).
The Planning Reimagined Group – comprising a cross-party group of elected members - was recently established to review the entire planning process at SSDC in order to deliver the following objectives:
- Deliver the aims and objectives of the Council Plan and the Local Plan
- Deliver good outcomes for our communities
- Speed and efficiency that meets Government targets without relying on Extensions of Time
- Delivers all the above with the resources allocated to the service
- Achieve good customer service and establish a well-respected service.
While the service has continued to perform well against national targets in recent years, in response to feedback from local communities, planning agents and developers, SSDC was determined to ensure the highest possible standards were being met.
Has the service improved?
Following a number of recent actions, SSDC has seen improvements to the service across a number of areas:
- At the start of the financial year, the average length of time to validate an application was 36 days, over the past two quarters, the average is 8.5 days.
- Enforcement - at the end of 2020 there were 522 open cases, this has been reduced to 361 cases
- Statistics prepared by the South West Development Management Group indicate that for the 24 months to September 2021, SSDC was sixth among 21 South West authorities in terms of speed of decision-making
- 90% of decisions are being made within agreed targets or agreed extensions of time.
Cllr Tony Lock, Portfolio Holder for Protecting Core Services, said: “All of these improvements were achieved despite the incredibly challenging time for the planning service with a number of issues arising beyond the Council’s control.
“In recent years, we have seen a large increase in enforcement cases - up to four times the number, we have seen in previous years - we have also seen a 22% increase in planning applications. Phosphate mitigation has also affected the ability of the team to determine planning applications
“However, the work we have completed over the last 18 months has put us in a positive position as we move forward and we will continue to make improvements.
“Over the next year, we will be working with the other Local Planning Authorities in Somerset within the context of Local Government Reform, taking best practice from across the County to continue to improve and develop an excellent service.”
What is the issue impacting on planning created by phosphates?
In August 2020, SSDC along with the other Somerset Councils as well as Dorset Council received a letter from Natural England concerning high levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors and stressing the need to protect them from further phosphate pollution.
Parts of the district fall within the Somerset Levels and Moors which are designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Habitat Regulations 2017 and listed as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention.
In light of a court Judgement (known as Dutch N), Natural England has advised SSDC that, in light of the unfavourable condition of the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site, before determining a planning application/submission that may give rise to additional phosphates within the catchment, competent authorities should undertake a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA).
This means the Council is currently unable to determine some applications until the impact the development would have on phosphate levels has been addressed.
SSDC currently has some 290 applications which it cannot determine due to phosphate constraints. This equates to about 3,900 dwellings.
However these headline figures do not reflect the other benefits that arise particularly from the larger sites held up by phosphates, including the delivery of much needed affordable housing, new schools and community facilities as well as funding towards recreation and play facilities used by the wider community.
SSDC is currently working with a number of developers who are looking to deliver site specific mitigation, whether through land management, wetland creation or retrofitting options, however each scheme needs to demonstrate to the satisfaction of Natural England that the phosphate removal or reduction efficiencies are both reliable and can be delivered over an 80 year term.
Cllr Lock added: “We continue to work with our partner Somerset councils and we hope to be able to publish further guidance relating to the most suitable land management mitigation approaches later this spring.
“Separately we continue to lobby central government seeking assurances that they will work with the relevant departments and other agencies to co-ordinate advice, resources and the review of standards for water providers and land managers to deal with what is a national issue. We are also working with trade and professional bodies to raise the profile of this serious constraint upon local growth to ensure it is dealt with at a national level.”