Audit Wales report lays bare state of Powys Council’s planning department

A DAMNING report by Audit Wales lays bare the weaknesses of Powys County Council’s Planning department.

Audit Wales is an organisation whose purpose is to assure and explain to the people of Wales that how public money is being used and that it’s managed well published their report on Monday, May 15.

They have provided a list of nine recommendations that they expect the authority to address over the next year.

The review took place in May 2022 and between October and December.
Audit Wales also suggest that Powys planners “could approach” PEDW (Planning and Environment Decision Wales) for “advice on decisions.”

Audit Wales said: “We have concerns about the fundamental strategic,
operational and cultural weaknesses of the council’s planning service.

“These weaknesses hinder its ability to consistently and sustainably support staff and members to deliver an effective service that helps the council achieve its corporate objectives.

“The performance data that the council submits to Welsh Government
shows that the time it takes to determine major planning applications and
enforcement continues to be poor.”

Audit Wales say they have “concern” about the accuracy of the data and whether it is reporting accurate information to the Welsh Government, councillors, and the public.

The report continues “The roles, responsibilities and governance arrangements within the planning service are not clear.

“This undermines the professionalism of officers,
leading to a fractured service and inconsistent working practices.”

A problem identified by the report is the “unstable” planning workforce.

Audit Wales said: “It has a high staff turnover, disjointed team meetings, poor flow of communication and a lack of formal learning and development opportunities which are negatively impacting the service.”

Audit Wales also point out that the wider council didn’t know of the problems in the department.

Audit Wales said: “It is surprising and concerning that the council was corporately unaware of the scale and detail of these challenges, of how they are impacting the effectiveness, efficiency, performance, and staff, and that the challenges had not been brought to its attention to address them sustainably.

“This raises concerns about the council’s control and oversight of the effectiveness of its planning service.”

In response to feedback from Audit Wales the council has set up a service improvement board to address the issues raised in the report.

Cabinet member for a connected Powys which includes the planning portfolio, Liberal Democrat Cllr Jake Berriman said: “We full accept the findings of this review.

“I am completely committed to using this report to help put things right and to work towards having one of the most highly regarded planning services in Wales.

“We have excellent officers working as part of a dedicated and committed planning team, who will embrace the report in full.

“Working with the service improvement board that I chair, it is their efforts that will ensure we rapidly improve the service so that in 12 months’ time, Audit Wales and service users will see a significant difference in our planning services.”

The Audit Wales recommendations are:

a) review the political and strategic intent for its planning enforcement

b) develop a business plan which should clarify the planning service’s links between the planning service and the council’s corporate objectives, to focus the service’s action on improvement.

c) safeguard the planning service’s officers, senior managers, and councillors by developing clear arrangements and protocols which set out how they engage directly with planning agents and applicants to ensure integrity, trust, and confidence in the service.

d) establish regular and effective team meeting arrangements to improve
communication within the planning service and provide a structured and
consistent opportunity for officers to discuss planning and enforcement

e) put transparent and consistent arrangements in place for the service to
act cohesively as a team to discuss officers’ differences of opinion on
planning applications, to ensure all officers are professionally satisfied
with the final planning decisions.

f) establish service standards and protocols and effectively communicate
these to all officers to ensure consistent approaches.

g) put in place formal staff learning opportunities to ensure a consistent,
structured and proactive approach to support new officers in the role.

h) assure that the planning service has robust data quality arrangements to
ensure that it reports accurate performance data so that staff, councillors
Welsh Government and the public can rely on its integrity to make accurate and informed decisions.

i) identify and learn from good practice from other local planning
authorities when implementing service improvements.

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