News Article

Bristol City Council Planning Department placed into Special Measures by the Secretary of State

Adam Rabone

Adam Rabone

Associate Partner – Planning

3rd Apr 2024

It is well known in local circles that Bristol City Council’s planning department have been in a state of considerable difficulty over the last two years, resulting in a significant backlog of applications. At its peak in summer 2023, applicants had to wait an average of 24-weeks to be allocated a planning officer for non-major applications. At the same time, these officers faced a backlog of some 1,705 applications, with an estimated output of 0.3 decisions per week, per officer.

The Council’s Planning Service Improvement Plan, from which these figures are derived, highlighted several issues as the cause for these problems. Such issues include an historic recruitment freeze (resulting in a 36% loss in staff up to March 23), new recruitment challenges (including reliance on graduate and agency staff), and an overreliance on consultancy resources. The planning committee system has also faced its fair share of issues, both politically, and in terms of decision making, with one committee often being cited as more ‘developer friendly’ than the other.

As a result, there has been considerable frustration from applicants – from those simply wanting a house extension, to developers seeking the next, much needed mixed-use housing led development. This has led to a stalling of development and often confidence in a growing and successful city, to the ultimate detriment of delivering sustainable growth and regeneration.

Now, as a result of these delays, Bristol City Council’s planning department has been placed into ‘special measures’ by the Secretary of State via powers conferred under section 62a of the Town and Country Planning Act. In Bristol’s case, this direction relates only to ‘non-major’ planning applications, so the following types of application are not affected:

  • Major planning applications (10 or more homes, 1000 sq m + floor area, or sites of 1 ha+);
  • Householder applications;
  • Retrospective applications;
  • Applications to vary or remove conditions.

In practice, this means that applicants seeking non-major development can instead apply to the Planning Inspectorate to determine their application instead of the city’s planning department. This is unlikely to be received well by those in power in the city, particularly from a political perspective, as local democratic planning controls will be seen to be compromised. 

There are also strict requirements placed upon the planning department if an application is submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. They must provide a substantive response to the application within 21 days of validation, including responses from any internal and non-statutory consultees; and a recommendation, with reasons, for whether planning permission should be granted or refused. The Inspectorate confirm that any representations submitted after this date may not be taken into account.

Will any future applicants take this opportunity up?

Applying to the Planning Inspectorate comes with some strings attached:

  • There is no specific provision in the process for amendments or revision to the application once it has been submitted;
  • Extensions of time for determination (beyond the statutory determination period of 8 weeks) will only be agreed if there are ‘exceptional circumstances’;
  • Your application may go to a ‘hearing’ if considered complex;
  • There is no right of appeal.

We are aware that the planning department is attempting to improve, and their new Chief Planner appointed in May 2023 is confident she can turn the service around. We have found applications being assigned officers much quicker so far this year, although it is still too early to say for sure if this progress will continue. 

Ultimately, we still advise applicants to work positively with, and apply to, Bristol’s planning department rather than the Planning Inspectorate, unless there is need for a quick approval and/or the proposal is almost entirely without risk – which, given the complexity of Bristol’s planning policies and the emerging Regulation 19 local plan submission, is probably going to be rare.

In the meantime, in today’s rapidly changing world, the need for on the ground local planning experts has never been more crucial. Get in touch with the South West Planning experts at Rapleys to find out more.

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Associate Partner – Planning

Adam Rabone