Buckinghamshire Council Merger: One Year On

31st March 2021

The merging of the five former authority areas to create the single Buckinghamshire Council, with one of its main objectives being to improve efficiency, will celebrate its one year anniversary on 1st April 2021. At a reported cost to taxpayers of almost £10 million, has it been successful?

From a planning application perspective, the day to day dealings with planning officers has not actually changed a significant amount, with the exception of complications involved with working from home due to COVID-19. Lockdown is something all businesses and public bodies have had to deal with and, in this instance, it does appear to have hindered their ability to fully amalgamate as one authority. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it also seems to have slowed the whole application determination process down – not ideal given that it was not exactly quick before.

However, it has also been reported to us that, to the Council’s surprise, their workloads have increased and in response they have been seeking to recruit additional planners to help resourcing. In theory this should speed up the application process in line with normal expectations, which will of course be good for everyone involved!

The way that each of the previous authority areas are assessing planning applications has so far remained unchanged in terms of our external dealings with them. As such, you can expect officers to apply the same development plan policies as before the merger when assessing the acceptability of development proposals, and the planning application committees are still divided by district.

As reported in our December 2020 article, ‘What’s the plan with the Plans?’, preparation has started for a new Buckinghamshire wide Local Plan. However, it is going to take some time before it is adopted. The result is a policy vacuum in some parts of the county which certainly has the potential to cause a few headaches in ensuring housing delivery happens in the right places and at the right time. This also creates opportunities where policies are out of date.

Nevertheless, things are gradually changing within the Council as they seek to streamline services and make changes to internal structures and Governance arrangements. For instance, the Boundary Commission are undertaking an Electoral Review of Buckinghamshire Council, the first phase of which will determine the appropriate number of Councillors. At present they have 190, with a possible reduction to 120 being considered.

The Council is also reviewing its future agenda, the involvement of Councillors in the strategic direction of the Council, the Scrutiny and Regulatory functions, and the role and workload of Councillors as leaders in their localities. The outcomes could have implications for decisions on future development proposals, such as changes to the scheme of delegation which is used to decide whether planning applications are determined by the planning committee or not.

The jury’s out on whether the change to a unitary authority has been successful in terms of delivering the promised greater efficiency, and in truth, it is probably too early to tell, particularly given that lockdown has delayed some of the intended changes. We will continue to see things evolve over the coming months and years as the Council establishes and refines its new way of working. From a planning perspective, the creation of a single Council-wide Local Plan and a fully resourced planning department will be the main drivers for tangible change. We will watch with interest.

If you have a site in the Buckinghamshire area that you are looking to develop, get in touch with our Amersham office today. We can help to resolve any planning issues and liaise with the Council on your behalf.

Senior Principal Planner, Jonathan Jarman.

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