Staff shortages are hampering timely traffic assessments for planning applications in Warwickshire

Applicants have the right to bypass district or borough councils and take it to a national inspector if decisions are not reached within 13 weeks.
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Timely highways assessments for planning applications are proving a challenge for Warwickshire County Council due to trouble finding and keeping staff.

The issue was highlighted during a discussion of the county’s wider performance at this week’s meeting of the communities overview and scrutiny committee.

The council’s report acknowledged “capacity and workload issues are impacting delivery across the organisation” with “difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff in a highly constrained national and local labour market”.

Shire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike BakerShire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker
Shire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker

It noted “some improvement” towards the end of the last financial year but issues persist “within specific service teams”.

Councillor Peter Gilbert (Con, Bedworth West) queried which areas had been worst affected with Scott Tompkins, the county’s assistant director for environment services, highlighting a national “skill shortage across engineering and planning”.

In Warwickshire, district and borough councils determine planning applications but they consult many stakeholders, including the county council’s highways department in relation to safety, capacity and parking issues.

Time is of the essence with applicants having the right to bypass the district or borough council – and elected councillors on the bigger applications – and take it to a national inspector if decisions are not reached within 13 weeks.

Mr Tompkins said: “We are having to work very closely with districts and boroughs on our response times for planning applications as the highways authority, feeding back our comments to developers, simply because we have so many vacancies.

“At one point last year, I had 30 per cent vacancy in that team.”

He added that two senior posts had been advertised twice each without success.

“They are roles in the £40-50,000 range and we just can’t get suitable candidates. We have used headhunters, we have gone out to agencies, it is really difficult,” he said.

“When we talk to other authorities, we are all having the same struggle and we are all fishing for the same people in the same pool.

“We are trying to do a lot with apprenticeships, to grow our own, and we have a work experience programme that we are pushing forward as well so we can do a bit more succession planning for the future.”

Cllr Gilbert questioned whether the post-Covid move towards working from home was having an impact on staffing issues generally.

“Not just here but across the country, maybe the world, the employment place is a bit more sterile," he said.

"People are working from home, not communicating with other work colleagues and having that camaraderie.

"I think that is something a workplace needs, I think we need to make sure we move away from a working-from-home programme and get people back into the building.

“I think it is chicken and egg, people will get a job somewhere if they feel they are going to be a part of something, if they are going to get away from home and have a different pace to the day than the night.”

Strategic director for communities Mark Ryder argued that there was a balance to be struck.

“At the heart of our offer to staff is agile working,” he said.

“It is something that is, to a very large extent, welcomed, although there are many who prefer that more fixed regime.

“Our take on this is not having a rules-based approach but to encourage a workplace that people want to come into.

“What we are seeing through the monitoring of activity is that more and more people are coming back to the office now.

“I agree that having a vibrant workplace is really important but there is a huge benefit to that agile approach, not having that huge commute into a town centre base is one of those and also giving people that work-life balance.”