Bedford’s planning department is struggling near the bottom of the league – according to top council officer

Bedford borough’s planning service is near the bottom of the league – and that’s according to the council officer in charge.
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The department has suffered a flurry of resignations, with one officer handing in their notice on Monday, the day of the council’s latest planning committee meeting.

Jon Shortland, the council’s chief officer for highways, transport, planning and infrastructure development said they have been “keeping our heads above water.”

He said: “I thought the committee might find it interesting that figures were released by the Government this week looking at the performance of all 353 councils. We are currently ranked at 337th.

“So we are not really in the fight for Europe, but in football terms we are apparently the equivalent of Chalfont St Peter or Potters Bar Town.”

Councillors discussed reasons why the planning department has four vacancies, with two of those posts covered by agency officers. Another officer is about to take a month’s leave, the meeting heard.

There are also two recently qualified graduates learning the local policy ropes and everyone is currently working at home, with productivity at 80 per cent, the meeting heard.

Mr Shortland said working from home was “not conducive to enjoying work”.

Jon ShortlandJon Shortland
Jon Shortland

He also explained that the planning department is waiting for a review of how it works, with the aim of putting more services online.

The council aims to save £20 million from introducing a “digital operating model” but the planning department has been waiting for its review for three years, the meeting heard.

Mr Shortland, who said he had doubts over how far planning could be digitised, added: “Planning is always said to be next.

“This has meant uncertainty as people have seen the effects of other people working in different ways, with fewer numbers.

“People aren’t confident in the future,” he added. This meant that they have been leaving to take more attractive jobs.

“I think uncertainty is a big part of that problem,” he added. The review of planning was due to start in November he said.

Mr Shortland was appearing at the planning committee to make the case to keep the council’s “temporary scheme of delegation” running for another month.

It has restricted the number of planning applications decided by elected members.

Monday’s meeting lasted just 35 minutes as only two applications were dealt with. One of the items was only on the agenda because it is made by a council planning officer.

The other item followed a site visit to King Street in Kempston where a resident wants to build a side extension to add two more homes on a site. Councillors agreed to the plan.

Cllr Wendy Rider (Lib Dem, Brickhill) praised the planning department for continuing to “serve us well” under difficult circumstances.

Cllr Alison Foster (Cons, Harrold) who has opposed changes to how the planning committee works since they were introduced in March, was the only councillor to vote against continuing the temporary rules.