TOWN Hall chiefs have been told ‘get a grip’ and consult on building a ‘fit for purpose’ planning service to oversee the development of Warrington over the next 20 years.

Cllr Bob Barr, leader of the town’s Liberal Democrats, fears a lack of action could result in the council losing more talented planning officers.

Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Warrington Guardian, the authority confirmed 12 planning officers have left in the last three years.

Five left between September 2015 and August 2016, 0 between September 2016 and August 2017 and seven between September 2017 and August 2018.

In addition, there have been three occasions in the past 24 months where planning officers have been absent for more than three weeks due to sickness.

Outside bodies have also been involved in cases involving the council’s planning officers in the past two years.

Two of the main outside bodies who are involved in supporting staff are UNISON and Occupational Health.

A council spokesman said: “The planning team is undergoing a staffing restructure at the moment and UNISON is positively supporting planning officers collectively and individually during this change process.

“The union have supported individual members of staff when they have been subject to performance reviews, disciplinary matters and in grievances.

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“Occupational Health have been involved in supporting planning officers through health issues and supporting staff return to work after sickness.”

The council also confirmed planning consultant Urban Vision has been used to provide support in the determination of planning applications in times of high demand or limited capacity, as well as to provide specialist input on both the local plan and in determining planning applications.

Furthermore, planning consultancy support has been commissioned for specialist input into the production of the local plan and on various master-planning projects.

It can be revealed that there have been six planning consultant positions agreed over the past two years to cater for periods of high demand or limited staffing capacity.

The spokesman added: “These consultants are only appointed on short-term contracts to either tackle specific tasks, provide a specific short-term skill, fill a short-term gap in the establishment, or deal with a defined period of high demand in case work.

“Planning consultancy commissions are not paid on a yearly salary rate – the firms are paid for a particular commission and this varies depending on the scale and complexity of the particular commission involved.

“Consultants are appointed through a tender process, or via an approved framework.

“The planning consultant posts are not paid on a yearly salary basis – they are appointed via agencies and are paid on a weekly or hourly rate.

“These positions have been on a short term, maximum three-month contract basis.

“It should be noted here that, increasingly, the finances of the planning service are fuelled by fee income (the fee paid by applicants when making a planning application to the council) and less by the ratepayer.

“The council also has a statutory duty to process planning applications submitted to it and do so within set statutory timescales.

“Therefore, the service must provide a service and determine applications irrespective of the demand pressures and staffing limitations it encounters.”

The council says its planning service has achieved a ‘high level of performance’ over the last four years.

The processing of major applications within 13 weeks had a 100 per cent rate in 2014-15, 100 per cent in 2015-16, 88 per cent in 2016-17 and 98 per cent in 2017-18.

The rate for the processing of minor applications within eight weeks was 86 per cent in 2014-15, 70 per cent in 2015-16, 81 per cent in 2016-17 and 87 per cent in 2017-18.

Cllr Barr believes Warrington is a ‘challenge’ for planners because, in addition to routine domestic applications, there are many large and complex developments that require specialist skills.

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He is calling on the executive board to act – or face losing more planning officers.

He said: “During the 2006 to 2011 Liberal Democrat led administration, we explored the possibility of expanding the planning department and offering planning services to other towns, while maintaining the range of skills and offering better career prospects to our own planners.

“Unfortunately, Labour undermined those efforts, and having taken control, failed to reform our planning service.

“This led to a demoralised and poorly managed planning department with high turnover and dependency on bought-in skills.

“The executive board needs to get a grip before we lose more excellent planning officers.

“It must consult on how to build a fit for purpose planning service to oversee the rapid development of our town in the next 20 years.”

But Labour councillor Hitesh Patel, executive board member for personnel and communications, has responded.

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He said: "After the broken promises about university tuition, it is unsurprising that the public now always take anything the Liberal Democrats say with a pinch of salt.

"This latest news that the Warrington Liberal Democrats are celebrating that for five years the 'explored' options shows just how little they achieved when the Liberal Democrats got into bed with the Tories to run Warrington Town Hall.

"Let's not forget that the Tory Government, which was propped up by the Liberal Democrats, has slashed over £90 million from the Town Hall's budget.

“Despite this, Labour has protected many vital public services, we have reduced sickness levels to the current low rates and, crucially, the planning department is now charging developers more for processing their planning applications.

“These are all things the Liberal Democrats could have done but didn't – but if there is ever a Christopher Columbus award for 'exploring', I'd happily support the Liberal Democrats’ nomination."

The owner of a construction firm believes the council’s planning department has become significantly worse over the past year.

Gordon Critchley, owner of GJ Critchley, which is a building design and construction firm, has raised serious concerns.

He said: “I have been submitting planning applications to Warrington Borough Council for 40 years, mainly for residential applications.

“There have been issues with the planning department in the last 12 months – it has gone to the dogs.

“Applications should be approved after eight weeks.

“But in the last 12 months, one decision was four months and two weeks late, while another one was two months late.

“For me, work could not start on the site until a decision was made.

“It affects me and it must have a similar effect on others.”

Mr Critchley was also critical of the council opting to use the services of planning consultant Urban Vision.

He added: “I don’t know how they can justify using a planning consultant.

“Surely, it is more economical to employ the council’s own staff, rather than to bring in a consultant.

“It has to cost them a lot more money using consultants.

“Council taxpayers should be made aware of this situation.”

The authority has issued a short statement in response.

The spokesman said: "If Mr Critchley would like to write to us referring to the applications where he has had issues, we would be happy to look at them individually and provide a response."