Government acts over city planning delays 

THE Government has placed Bristol City Council’s planning department “under designation” because of its failures to deal with applications in time.

This means developers wanting to build between one and nine homes can apply directly to the government’s Planning Inspectorate for permission, bypassing the council. Householder applicants or proposed developments of 10 or more homes are not affected.

The backlog of applications has come down from its peak last summer, but in February there were still 600 without an assigned case officer. Councillors on the growth and regeneration scrutiny commission were updated about the issue on March 7.

Alex Hearn, director of economy of place, said: “It’s obviously not positive at all, we recognise that. It’s also important to recognise that there’s a lot of progress being made in the service. 

“The officers in the service are doing a brilliant job and are very committed to getting the backlog down to zero, which we hope to be able to do by around summer. This doesn’t mean that we’ve been stripped of our powers.

“We’re working with the Government around our action plan to get us out of the designation. Once our action plan is approved and delivered, if we can show two clear quarters of sustaining good performance, then there’s every chance that we can have the designation rescinded.”

John Smith, executive director of growth and regeneration, added: “It’s not a positive thing. It reflects historically that we have had significant issues in planning, and that’s caused delays to applicants and we’re very sorry about that.”

Opposition councillors called for more action to tackle the crisis in the planning department.

Commenting on the designation, Conservative Councillor Richard Eddy, chair of the development control A committee, said: “It’s hardly a surprise to anyone who has followed closely the ‘log-jam’ in Bristol’s planning system over the last few years. Every time I attend the meetings of the Planning Users Group — and practically daily receive complaints from planning applicants and their agents — I hear of continuing problems and delays in the service.

“This is directly handicapping Bristol’s regeneration and the provision of new jobs, economic investment and housing.

“Officers have the full support of elected members in seeking to reduce this backlog and recruit the necessary professional planners to remedy the unacceptable delays. Indeed, under chief planner Simone Wilding, appointed in May 2023, there have been significant reductions in the planning backlog and new officers have been put in place, but more needs to be done to resolve the fundamental problems.”

Green Cllr Tony Dyer added: “The actions required will have an impact on the planning process far beyond the end of the current administration and the current model of governance. It is therefore vital that any proposals agreed between BCC and [the government] have the full support of all political parties to ensure continuity into the committee model of governance.

“Bristol desperately needs a robust planning system that does not fast-track pet projects over the current unacceptable backlog and will hold developers to a higher standard, taking into account the needs of Bristol residents.”

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service