Bristol City Council’s beleaguered planning department insists it is still carrying out enforcement action against unlawful developments despite having almost no staff. Only one-and-a-half full-time employees plus a team leader are currently available to deal with cases where buildings are put up or changed without permission.

In March the Government placed the department in special measures and effectively stepped in to take it over because it was failing to determine planning applications in time. The immediate priority for officers is to work their way through the massive backlog of hundreds of proposed schemes for new homes and other buildings, but it means less urgent issues have plummeted down the pecking order, including enforcement action against developers who have built without the necessary consent.

The chronic staff shortage that led in the first place to the Secretary of State for Communities, Michael Gove, assigning the council “designated” status – which allows people applying for certain types of developments to bypass the council and go directly to the Government’s Planning Inspectorate – means other areas are now struggling. Employees are being taken away from issues such as enforcement, leaving delays to pile up and many cases simply abandoned.

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Presenting a list of enforcement cases totalling zero at a recent meeting of the development control ‘B’ committee, deputy head of planning Jonathan Dymond said: “There is nothing to report in terms of enforcement, there are no notices on the agenda.” Committee chair Cllr Ani Stafford-Townsend (Green, Central) said: “There are lots of questions about why there aren’t any enforcement notices because quite a lot of my residents have been in contact about the high level of enforcement requested.”

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Mr Dymond said staff had been diverted away to help deal with the backlog of planning applications. "They are essentially reduced in number, unfortunately,” he told the meeting on Wednesday, April 10.

“We do have plans after the summer, hopefully, when the backlog is under control, to move some of the graduate resource into that service to help with that work. Also we’ve been exploring joint working arrangements with the neighbourhood enforcement team.

“So when those officers are out and about in the city they can do some of that investigation work that can then be passed to the enforcement team to make their assessments.”

Cllr Guy Poultney (Green, Cotham) said: “It’s the idea that there may be no planning enforcement taking place over the summer or at least a very [diminished] service because an internal decision has been made to prioritise that resource to a different area – that is something this committee should be aware of, especially given our recent history with the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO).”

The civic watchdog recently upheld a complaint against the city council for failing to investigate a resident’s complaint about an alleged planning breach since December 2021. The man said the local authority did not look into his report that commercial units near his home were breaking planning conditions limiting waste collection times and carrying them out as early as 4.30am.

Bristol City Council took at least 20 months to investigate the case because of a massive backlog, the ombudsman’s report said. In March 2022 the LGO rapped the authority for “unacceptable delays” in investigating illegal houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

It censured the council the previous year for failing to address another man’s complaint about his neighbour’s fence. Replying to Cllr Poultney’s concerns at the planning committee, Mr Dymond said: “Enforcement activity is still happening.

“The plan after the summer is to add additional resource into that function.” A report to last month’s development control ‘A’ committee said the planning enforcement team currently amounted to just 1.5 full-time employees plus the team leader.

It said all recruitment efforts over the last eight months to find a replacement for a senior enforcement officer who left had failed. The report said agency staff had been brought in to help for six months but it was too expensive and had been stopped.

It said: “The major focus of the wider development management team has been to clear the backlog of planning applications. Putting additional resource into enforcement by transferring two graduates has been planned once we expect the development management service to be in a sufficiently well performing position.”

The report said active enforcement work was “going on within the context of the resource currently available”. It said officers were focusing on “cases that are of the most significance”.

Committee chairman Cllr Richard Eddy (Conservative, Bishopsworth) said: “The report makes accurate but somewhat depressing reading.” Mr Dymond replied: “There have been problems with recruitment and retention and there is a plan in the summer to move some graduates over to help with the improvement work.

“This will be dependent, though, on the progress with the backlog because we have had to prioritise that.”

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