In only her second ever deputation at one of its meetings, Penny Mordaunt said actions taken by the council to tackle the ‘massive problem’ - with a backlog of planning applications and a lack of progress on the creation of a new Local Plan - had not gone far enough.
‘We have huge opportunities in the coming months and years to vastly improve the quality of life and opportunity for our citizens,' she said, citing major development schemes across the city. 'The quality and ability of planning will be fundamental in our success or otherwise.
‘I recognise the additional challenges the department has had to deal with - Covid and nitrates being two - but even allowing for that we have been in a dire situation with major backlogs and poor service to the public for some time.’
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In a bid to reduce the number of applications waiting in the system, which at the time stood at about 300, the council held a two-week shutdown of the department beginning at the end of April during which it processed about 250 of them.
Previous attempts, including paying £50,000 to specialist firm Terraquest, had a limited impact. In December the chairman of the planning committee Cllr Hugh Mason said that despite hiring Terraquest and trying to recruit more planners, there was still a backlog of 280 planning applications waiting for a decision. The council usually decides between 800 and 1,000 a year.
But Ms Mordaunt said the problems went beyond the backlog and had led to strategic issues on major projects within the department.
She said the council had ‘squandered’ efforts to create a masterplan for the St James' Hospital site, having lost ‘key’ documents and by failing to respond to a Homes England consultation.
She added that the council was 'oscillating between two plans, neither of which are practically possible' for Tipner West.
‘For years I have been writing to say you have a massive problem,’ she told councillors. 'Some action to change culture and build capacity has been taken but I'm hear to tell you again it's not enough.
‘Better - or a bit less dire - should not get in the way of excellent.’
Among a series of suggestions, she called on the council to prioritise improvements in the department by publishing performance measures and agreeing to a meeting with the chief planning officer of England to 'clarify confusion' over housing targets which has hampered progress on the Local Plan.
Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said difficulties in the department were not unique to Portsmouth and that more support needed to be provided by the government.
‘Every council is having real problems with planning,' he said. 'We have made real progress but it's a long-term issue that's mainly down to the government.
‘We will continue to work to make sure we address Penny Mordaunt’s concerns but the power rests with her government to give us the powers we need.’