West Northamptonshire Council's new planning enforcement policy approved despite concerns about its strength and staffing

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'I don't think it will solve the problems but it will start working towards that goal'

A new policy on planning enforcement for West Northamptonshire has been approved by the council despite concerns about its strength and staffing issues.

West Northamptonshire Council' s cabinet rubber-stamped the 'local enforcement plan' at a meeting on Tuesday (October 12), designed to 'harmonise' the policies of the previous three local authorities.

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But one councillor believes the 'light' policy is not strong enough to protect communities from planning breaches and others were worried the lack of staff means it cannot be enforced effectively anyway.

West Northamptonshire Council cabinet member for planning, Rebecca BreeseWest Northamptonshire Council cabinet member for planning, Rebecca Breese
West Northamptonshire Council cabinet member for planning, Rebecca Breese

Cabinet member for planning, Rebecca Breese, said: "I accept we have a staffing issue, not just us but across certainly the Midlands if not England. There is a finite pool of enforcement officers and all fishing in the same pool.

"I accept that's a problem and we are working on it. But we need to have a harmonised enforcement policy so that the resources we do have can work effectively across the three areas which can't happen at the moment.

"So breaches in Northampton can't be dealt with by officers in Daventry as they're not familiar with the policies. Hopefully this will go some way to ease.

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"I don't think it will solve the problems but it will start working towards that goal."

The old councils for Northampton, Daventry and South Northamptonshire had slightly different approaches so the new West Northamptonshire unitary authority wants to align them.

The council said it has also tried to make the new enforcement plan easy to read and understand with clear timescales for dealing with cases, which will be linked to targets.

But Labour councillor Emma Roberts had little faith in officers meeting these targets based on her previous experience and urged the cabinet to reconsider the policy.

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"I didn't like the report, I think it gives developers the opportunity to exploit the position that we're in and I think it gives them clear indicators of when we'll roll over and when we will feel comfortable about letting a breach go," she said.

"I think it's a really light document although with respect I gave some comparisons to other authorities and it takes a similar vein.

"But I think it gives a lot away to the developer and leaves it open to them to take certain courses of action that certainly residents in my area feel they have experienced historically.

"This document will go absolutely no way to protect them as far as the complaints that they've raised in respect of developments."

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Fellow opposition councillors Sally Beardsworth and Julie Davenport raised concerns about the lack of enforcement officers who would be carrying out the work.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Beardsworth said the policy needs to stop 'absolute monstrosities' from being built but a lack of staff makes her doubt its effectiveness.

Councillor Davenport added: "It's great to have a planning policy that encompasses all but to me, it's all well and good to put it into a report but it's words and it's not action."

The independent councillor claimed there were far more former South Northamptonshire Council enforcement officers than old Northampton ones with a quarter of the caseload.

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But Councillor Breese insisted the new policy would mean staff from different old councils will be able to work across the whole council and share the work.

Deputy leader Adam Brown defended the policy as a way to set expectations for the public by which they can hold the council to account if it fails to meet them.

The Conservative councillor added that it is not a 'rogue's guide' to breaching planning permission and 'unscrupulous' developers will still look for loopholes regardless.

"Unfortunately the legislature we're working under is remarkably permissive, it's remarkably weighted in favour of developers and people who would go out of their way to flaunt planning law," he said.

"That's to the frustration of all of us as ward members when we see things happening on our patch that we would not want to happen."