WALTER CRONXITE reports on the latest short-comings in one of the council’s key functions due to poor…errr… planning by senior executives
Croydon Council has made so many staff redundant that it now can take more than six months to process routine planning applications submitted to Fisher’s Folly.
The delays have been admitted in a startling admission from Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the Labour-run council and the cabinet member responsible for homes, regeneration and planning.
The council began its latest round of job cuts 12 months ago, to reduce staff numbers to cope with further reductions to the authority’s grant from central government and to address a £3.5million budget overspend in the last financial year. This was the second significant round of redundancies at Croydon Council in five years, and it came with a freeze on recruitment.
The shortage of experienced planning staff comes in the midst of a supposed multi-billion-pound development drive across the borough.
But with around 4,500 planning applications being submitted to the council annually, these now have to be dealt with by a team of fewer than 20 town planning staff.
The lack of planning staff at the council has created a real bottleneck for the council leadership’s lofty talk of £5 billion-worth of development.
It costs £172 to make a planning application to the council.
Planning applications submitted to Croydon’s offices ought, routinely, to take no longer than eight weeks. But according to senior sources on Cost A Mint Walk, the average turn-round time for planning applications, even for apparently routine matters, can now take three times longer than ought to be expected.
This deterioration in service delivery by the council planning department does not reflect well on the chief executive, Jo Negrini, who before she was promoted to the £185,000 per year council top job this summer, had for two years been in charge of the pompously titled “Place” department, which includes planning. That suggests that any departures of senior and qualified town planners from Croydon will have been signed off by Negrini.
In a written council answer provided by Councillor Butler last month, she said, “I appreciate and acknowledge that there has been a recent dip in the time taken to determine planning applications. This has been due to a number of factors; an increasing number of planning applications being submitted to the council for determination, the departure of a number of key staff leaving the service and the introduction of a new IT operating system to process applications.”
The IT operating system is the outcome of a £73 million contract with Crapita which was agreed in 2013, and which has been a constant source of frustration for many council staff ever since.
But it is a shortage of staff which has been the main cause of delays in the planning department.
“In replacing staff, the service has experienced difficulties recruiting high calibre town planners,” according to Butler. This is not Croydon’s fault, Butler claimed: “This is currently an issue across many London boroughs with a shortage of appropriately trained and skilled people.”
So, within nine months of offering voluntary redundancy to 2,800 staff and applying a recruitment freeze, the council had devised what Butler calls “a retention and recruitment campaign” in the planning department.
“This has been far more successful than previous recruitment rounds and has also successfully retained staff in the face of alternative employment offers,” Butler said.
“A number of new staff have now been offered positions and these are now working their notice period with existing employers. To address the time lag before our permanent staff can take up positions, a targeted approach around agency staff recruitment has enabled us to secure an enhanced calibre of experienced staff who have provided immediate relief and brought individual caseloads down.
“An increased decision rate is now flowing through, although it will be a few more weeks for the full effect to be felt,” Butler assured.
Though the councillor still has the fall-back excuse of that Crapita IT system, according to Butler’s cliche-ridden answer: “The new Uniform IT system brings significant improvement to the former outdated platform, it does however take time to bed down; for information to be transitioned from one system to another and for glitches to be resolved. This, along with case officers having to learn their way round the new system has slowed down working output. However benefits are being realised which should allow a much enhanced service going forward.”
Butler must have been taken some tips from the announcements issued by platform staff at East Croydon Station: “We anticipate our previous level of service will soon be resumed and I apologise to anyone who has been inconvenienced.”
Yet having a council without enough staff to perform its basic functions is something likely to get worse for years to come.
The council is planning to make another £45 million-worth of cuts over the next four years, as Croydon’s grant from the Tory Government is being reduced by £24 million, to £88 million.
More detailed proposals on how the council plans to make the savings are due to go before the scrutiny and overview committee on December 13, though when the council aired the cuts in outline last month, Tony Newman, the council leader, actually called them “good news for Croydon”.
This from a supposedly Labour council leader, happily implementing yet more Tory austerity cuts. Seriously.
“This is good news for Croydon and its residents who will benefit from greater security and more financial certainty,” Newman said. “The new efficiency plan will empower the council and allow it to look ahead to the continued delivery of the key, frontline, value for money services that residents need and most importantly, deserve.”
From a council which cannot even plan properly for its own planning staff.
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