Waverley and Guildford councils were among ten non-Tory run councils warned by Housing Secretary Michael Gove this week that their jointly-run planning departments are “not good enough” and threatened with having their decision-making powers stripped.

The two borough councils, which share a management team, have been written to by the Housing Secretary Michael Gove over their “very poor” quality of service that fell “far below” expected thresholds.

Councils must determine at least 70 per cent of non-major planning applications within eight weeks – or agree to an extension. The two Surrey councils have fallen well below that figure, the department said. Mr Gove was therefore “minded” to designate the councils, meaning developers could bypass them completely and submit planning applications directly to the Planning Inspectorate. 

This would effectively strip the authorities of their say over planning matters locally – and with it the decision-making powers of democratically-elected councillors.

Mr Gove’s final warning letter sent to 10 councils nationally read: “The Government is clear that having an efficient and effective planning service at local authority level is essential to delivering the homes, building and investment the country needs. The planning performance regime was introduced to ensure that all local planning authorities contribute to this objective. I have significant concerns about the performance of a handful of local authorities including your council.”

For Guildford, its performance of 50.1 per cent between October 2020 and September 2022 was far below the expected threshold of 70 per cent, while Waverley fared slightly better, at 61.7 per cent.

Mr Gove’s letter continued: “That is indicative of a very poor quality service to local residents and a significant deterrent to investment in your local housing market and wider economy. That is not good enough, and despite some more encouraging recent data, I am therefore minded to designate [the council].”

Mr Gove has now asked the Planning Inspectorate to prepare for designations over the summer period but said they had until June to make the required improvement to their planning service and “to exceed our performance thresholds and stay above it consistently”. 

Waverley Conservatives have since called on the council’s ruling coalition to “get a grip” on planning.

Councillor Carole Cockburn, borough councillor for The Bourne and acting leader of Waverley Conservatives, said: “Communities and local businesses have had the threat of the planning department being taken into special measures hanging over them for months because of the Lib Dem-Labour-Green-Farnham Residents Party coalition administration’s inability to deal with the problem.

“They need to get a grip, and fast, to save our local voice in planning matters. Otherwise, people and businesses across Waverley will continue to suffer.”

A spokesperson for Waverley Borough Council said planning performance suffered in 2021 and early 2022 as a result of the pandemic, as well as “teething issues” with a new planning IT system, an increase in applications following lockdown and a nationwide shortage of planning officers.

Since then, the council said there had been a “significant uplift in planning performance, and we are making headway in reducing the backlog of planning applications, but caseloads for our officers remain high”. But staffing remains a “significant challenge”.

They added: “Mr Gove has acknowledged the improvement in our performance and rather than moving to formally designate the council, has given us the opportunity to demonstrate this improvement over a longer period of time.”

Waverley Borough Council portfolio holder for planning and economic development, and Lib Dem councillor for Cranleigh East, Liz Townsend, said: “We have been working closely with the Planning Advisory Service to improve our performance, and during the three most recent quarters 83 per cent, 92 per cent and 96 per cent of non-major applications respectively, were determined within the allotted time – significantly above the Government’s 70 per cent target.

“Our view is that designation is not appropriate and would be counterproductive to sustaining and improving on the gains in planning performance we have achieved over the last year.”

It is notable too that of the ten authorities ticked off by Mr Gove, the Tory MP for Surrey Heath, not one is Conservative-led.

The full list of councils written to by Michael Gove were: Calderdale (Labour-run), Cotswold (Lib Dem-run), Epsom and Ewell (Residents-run), Guildford (Lib Dem-run), Hinckley and Bosworth (Lib Dem-run), Pendle (hung), Portsmouth (Lib Dem-run), Vale of White Horse (Lib Dem-run) and Waverley (Lib Dem-run) councils, as well as the Peak District National Park Authority (non-political).

By Chris Caulfield

Local Democracy Reporter