Last month Bolton Council admitted its planning department had been acting unlawfully for a decade and could face a ‘six figure fee’ in compensating many people and developers who waited more than six months for a decision to be made. The planning department has been branded ‘not fit for purpose’ and the subject of ‘constant complaints’ after it emerged delayed application fees had not been refunded for more than ten years.
The revelation means the council is now liable to repay those whose planning applications were not resolved within 26 weeks, dating back to October 2013 when legislation was introduced. The council said the issue became apparent earlier this year when a member of the public requested a refund of fees after delays to an application.
Under the Government’s planning guarantee, fees must be refunded to planning applicants where no decision has been made within 26 weeks, unless a longer period has been agreed. Bolton Council leader Nick Peel said he believed that Bolton is not the only local authority in the country not complying with the law and they too could face huge bills for unpaid refunds.
Views from the council
The council said the vast majority of applications are resolved within the 26-week period but said an urgent historical audit was being conducted to find out how many planning applicants in Bolton were not refunded as per the law.
The issue has been debated by the full council:
Councillor Peel said “the planning department carries out a very important duty for this council. It is very demanding and very busy and we have some incredibly hardworking staff. It is not just members of the council who are appalled at these revelations, it is officers too. I want to reassure members of the public that lessons must and will be learned.”
Liberal Democrat leader Roger Hayes commented “I was horrified when I heard about the issue but I can’t say I’m surprised. There have been a lot of problems with this area of the council. There are some very able and dedicated officers working in planning. I feel sorry for them. It goes further than just cuts in budgets. I’ve long regarded the planning department as not fit for purpose. For a long time it’s needed quite drastic change.”
Conservative leader Martyn Cox, who was leader of the council until May this year, said: “We are in agreement on this. What I noticed during my time as leader was the constant complaints to my office about planning. This ranged from the largest of developers right down to someone having difficulties getting a home extension.
“What was clear to me and my cabinet members at the time that there was something fundamentally wrong with the department. We felt it was failing to such an extent we discussed it at every cabinet meeting, week after week. When you have failings in a department it’s not just in one part of it.”
The council had cross party support in a vote to establish a policy development group to make recommendations to the executive cabinet member for regeneration to resolve the issues in the planning department.