Concerns have been raised by a number of officers and councillors that Camden has been approving the majority of planning applications without even reading them fully, due to unprecedented planning demand.
A number of planning officers have reported having such high caseloads during the COVID pandemic that they are unable to look at the detail of an application before approving it.
A number of planning officers left the department during the pandemic, and Camden’s finance department has told Camden they are not permitted to hire any new planners.
This is despite Camden’s planning department raising about 5% of Camden’s annual income, far outstripping the cost of hiring new officers.
It has led to an enormous increase in workload for an already stretched department, with many junior officers being assigned complex applications beyond their experience.
It also means that numerous planning applications concerning listed buildings have been allocated to officers without any training in conservation.
Mr Camden Officer (whose name has been anonymised) recently recommended a glass extension at Grade I Bedford Square for approval against the recommendation of conservation officers.
Bloomsbury Conservation was also contacted by an applicant who had been waiting five months for a response from him, only to be told that their planned restoration and conversion of two Grade II* Georgian terraces into single homes was unacceptable.
It means the remarkably preserved terraces on Great James Street are to be left empty after two years of advertisement saw no bids for use as their current office use.
And another applicant at North Crescent concerning a Grade II office building had reported frustrating delays, and Mr Officer had ignored requests for comment from conservationists giving pre-application advice.
The usual time limit for determining applications is 8 weeks, extending to 13 weeks for unusually complex applications. Any extension needs formal approval from the applicant.
But Camden has routinely been taking far longer to determine their planning applications without seeking the required permissions. This leaves them open to challenge and appeal on the grounds of ‘non-determination’, when the local authority fails to make a decision within acceptable timeframes.
The role of amenity societies in thoroughly scrutinising and objecting to applications is now more important than ever, with those groups being the only ones with enough resources to properly assess the merits of applications for the foreseeable future.
And the long anticipated ‘Conservation Department’ has been delayed even further, after the secured candidate for Head of Conservation was offered Camden’s minimum pay, leading to them declining the role. It means we will have to wait even longer for a much needed reorganisation, which is already more than 2 years in the making,
Camden’s array of conservation officers continue to work in scattered ‘area-based’ teams, unable to properly scrutinise the majority of applications which affect historic buildings and places.
In recent weeks Camden has been seeking to approve applications ahead of expected deadlines, but it remains to be seen whether the backlog can be cleared within a reasonable timeframe. Offers to help with clearing the backlog from amenity societies have been turned down due to issues of ‘propriety’.
And the planning department has refused to admit problems or irregularities in determination of applications, instead defending decisions which have clearly been made incompetently.
It has led to an even greater wastage of officer and councillor time, with the Bedford Square glass extension likely to head to planning committee, despite clearly being admitted as a mistake made by a junior officer.