Staff struggle to cope

UNDER pressure, and now under fire.That's Suffolk Coastal's planners who are today struggling to cope with their workload and facing tough criticism.

UNDER pressure, and now under fire.

That's Suffolk Coastal's planners who are today struggling to cope with their workload and facing tough criticism.

The planning department has been awarded just one star out of three and its standards labelled as "fair" in a new report on whether it gives "best value".

But the report comes at a time when officers are under extreme pressure dealing with a series of massive developments, including Felixstowe port expansion, Woodbridge airfield, Parham wind farm, and Notcutts' plans for Woodbridge. Last year the council received 2,458 planning applications, an increase of nearly 40 per cent over four years.

Most have to be decided within eight weeks and there is concern that rushing will harm the quality of the district.

Today council leaders hit back at the Audit Commission's criticisms and said a detailed action plan to improve the quality of its planning service was in place.

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The commission – which gives independent reports on council services – said the its concerns at the level of service came after the planning department received a 13.6pc rise on the previous year's revised budget, £1,289,600 to run its services.

Inspectors found service standards were not being set in full consultation with customers and were out of date.

The council was not setting challenging and ambitious targets to achieve performance at the levels of the best councils, and its improvement plan was not ambitious, and customer needs were not yet driving the service.

Some actions designed to improve the speed of application processing could be construed as reducing service quality – such as limiting negotiations with applicants once applications are received.

Andy Smith, deputy leader of the council and cabinet member for planning, said: "The inspectors' report is a bit disappointing as I do not think they have fully acknowledged either the achievements of our planning service who have played a major role in ensuring that the quality of the Suffolk Coastal environment is envied by all, or the challenge presented by the conflicting targets of speed of decisions and quality of the resulting environment.

"However, we know there is room for improvement and we had already committed ourselves to bringing in changes that over the coming year will make a positive impact in the service we offer to our customers."

The action plan includes streamlining procedures so decisions on planning applications can be made quicker, while a user forum, including agents and architects who make frequent contacts with Suffolk Coastal's planners, will be set up and be consulted about new service standards.

A new planning helpdesk make it easier for the public to get information, with more helpful and relevant advice on the council's website, and town and parish councils will to have more of a say on planning issues.