The merging of the five former authority areas to create the single Buckinghamshire Council was done with one of its main objectives being to improve efficiency. Some 2 years on, has it been successful?
From a planning application perspective, our day-to-day dealings with planning officers has not actually changed a significant amount. Currently, the five merged authorities are still assessing planning applications against their individual Local Plans, with Aylesbury Vale having adopted a new plan post the merge in September 2021. Similarly, their respective planning committees are still divided by district. Therefore, the way that each of the previous authority areas are assessing and determining planning applications has so far remained unchanged in terms of our external dealings with them.
While preparations have started on a new Buckinghamshire wide Local Plan the plan-making process is still in the early stages. The Authority must produce a Local Plan within 5 years of coming into being, that is, by April 2025. 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 This also creates opportunities where policies are out of date.
In April 2021 the first call for sites was completed and the results are being analysed. This first step looked for land that could be reused, mainly for homes. Currently, a wider call for sites is underway, including greenfield sites, which will help the Authority to gather a full understanding of the land available for development within Buckinghamshire. The call for sites is open until 11 September 2022 and is a great opportunity to bring potential development sites to the Council attention.
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, in February this year a public consultation completed by the Local Government Boundary Commission on proposed council size for the authority, decided that the number of councillors in Buckinghamshire should be 98. The public consultation on this closed in April and since then the Council have been drawing up a new pattern of wards to accommodate the changes. The draft recommendations for this were due to be published in early July.
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.
As it stands, the jury is still out on whether the change to a unitary authority has been successful in terms of delivering the promised greater efficiency. 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.
Eastern South East