Carmarthen: over £200,000 spent on private companies for planning services

CARMARTHENSHIRE Council has spent more than £200,000 on private companies dealing with planning applications and application cases over the past four years as it struggled to get the job done.

The new head of the planning department, Rhodri Griffiths, said there had been significant improvements in recent months and he was not using private companies at the moment.

Planning officers determine many requests per year, with planning committees made up of advisors often responsible for larger projects. Enforcement officers, on the other hand, investigate failures in planning control.

The council, in response to a freedom of information request from the Local Democracy Reporting Service, said it had spent £182,123 and £4,078 on two companies – Prospero Planning and Asbri Planning – to process planning requests between the April 1, 2018 and March 31. 2022. He paid Randstad Solutions Ltd £24,892 for the enforcement business.

Mr Griffiths, who took over as head of venue and sustainability in January this year, said a council report a few years ago raised concerns and led the authority to ask Audit Wales to review the planning service.

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Audit Wales’ subsequent report, published last summer, highlighted many concerns, in particular about the inability to manage a growing backlog. As of March 2021, there were 761 planning execution cases pending processing and 847 outstanding planning requests – some dating back more than five years.

“Significant and long-standing performance issues in the planning department need to be addressed urgently to help support the achievement of the council’s ambitions,” said the Audit Wales report, which also identified weaknesses in the development management.

The board set up an advocacy committee to address issues and work on a number of recommendations, which Griffiths said have almost all been implemented.

He said the law enforcement team had around 340 outstanding cases to investigate at the start of July – a sharp drop from 761 the previous March. Many historic cases, he said, had been closed. He said there were about 530 planning applications to be determined, up from 847 eight months earlier.

“There are public records that show the improvement,” he said.

Mr Griffiths said a new team called the Planning Center had had a major impact. Planning-related phone calls are required, which allows planning and executing agents to focus more on their day-to-day work.

He added that the enforcement team had been restructured and an additional more general focus on performance management had been put in place.

“I now have real-time data so I can see the bottlenecks,” said Mr Griffiths, who was a senior Welsh government official.

More staff have also been appointed, although councils generally need qualified planning officers and specialists such as planning ecologists.

The Carmarthenshire Planning Department is also handling a higher proportion of planning applications and execution cases within the Welsh Government’s target deadlines than before. The compliance figure for planning requests reached 93%, Mr. Griffiths said, in the last quarter.

A Planning Enforcement Statement has been issued by the council, which helps the public understand the subject and sets out various service level targets.

Swansea Council, in response to the same freedom of information questions sent to Carmarthenshire, said it had not spent any money on private companies handling planning applications and enforcement cases.

Swansea’s most recent planning application backlog stood at 715, while it had 662 new and ongoing application cases.

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