Waverley Borough Council has retained its powers to determine planning applications locally after a government minister commended the authority for renewed efforts to meet its housing targets.

Housing secretary Michael Gove wrote to Waverley in May threatening to strip away the borough’s planning powers for failing to determine 70 per cent of non-major applications within the eight-week target.

Councils must determine 60 per cent of major applications within eight-weeks. That figure grows to 70 per cent for “non-major” decisions. Failure to do so can mean a council is placed under designation and stripped of planning powers where it effectively loses control of development and allows builders to go straight to the planning inspector.

But after a review, Waverley – alongside Guildford and Epsom councils – has now received formal confirmation from the minister of state for housing and planning, Rachel Maclean, that the council will not be designated.

Waverley is still significantly behind on its overall target to deliver 779 new homes per year in the borough.

But commenting specifically on Waverley’s record on ‘non-major’ applications for ten or fewer homes, Mrs Maclean said she had reviewed the actions the council had taken to improve performance from October 2022 to June 2023, and was pleased to note performance on the rolling two-year average (71 per cent), and in the most recent quarter to June 2023 (97 per cent) were above the required threshold.

Waverley’s portfolio holder for planning, Councillor Liz Townsend, said: “This is a real credit to the planning team at Waverley and the way they have pulled together and worked extremely hard over the past 18 months.

“We recognised our performance levels had dipped and opted to tackle this head on by working in partnership with the Planning Advisory Service to improve our performance, streamline our internal processes and resolve the issues with our IT system.

“This has resulted in a significant uplift in performance, and we continue to make headway in reducing the backlog of applications.

“Recruitment and retention will remain a significant challenge for us. The nationwide shortage of qualified planning officers and the cost-of-living crisis has had a serious impact in our area.

“However, together with our action plan, we have recently appointed an extremely experienced executive head of planning development to lead the team, and we are implementing a series of actions to help us continue to recruit the planners we need, to build on the strengths of our planning service and continue to maintain and improve our performance.”

The housing minister did, however, warn the three Surrey councils they are not yet out of the woods and could still risk losing control of planning decisions unless they continue to make improvements to their departments.

Mrs Maclean wrote: “Due to the improvement over recent quarters I am minded not to designate your authority for poor performance at this time. 

“I recognise that to do so may undermine the work your authority has already commenced and I wish to support your performance improvement.

“However, I will continue to closely monitor the authority’s performance.

“Should the authority fail to further improve its performance in determining non-major applications to a level above the required average threshold, I will not hesitate to designate your authority for poor performance at a point in the future.”

Unlike Waverley, Guildford and Epsom still remain below the two-year rolling target but the government did not wish to punish authorities that have turned around their departments.

Workloads continue to be very high and staffing is an ongoing challenge, a spokesperson for Guildford Borough Council said. The cost of housing and living in Surrey, they added, makes recruiting and retaining talent in the South-East “a significant challenge”.

Lead councillor for planning, George Potter, said: “There is still significant work to do to maintain and better our improved performance, but we can take pride in the remarkable progress we’ve made under very challenging circumstances.”

Jackie King, chief executive of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, said: “We are very pleased that the Secretary of State has recognised the issues the council faced were historic and temporary in nature, and that the council has worked very hard to take significant proactive steps to address and improve them, resulting in our planning department far exceeding national targets over the past five consecutive quarters. 

“We have a strong and stable team and systems in place and are very confident that we will continue to provide a high level of service, over and above what is expected, into the future.”

Read Mrs Maclean's letter in full here.