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Council / Planning service cut back to allow staff to tackle backlog of applications

SOME planning services in Shetland have been temporarily suspended in the hope of allowing staff more time to process a backlog of applications.

The free planning duty officer and pre-application enquiry services were halted on Monday (22 February), and they are only due to return at the end of March.

The council’s planning manager Iain McDiarmid said the service is suffering from staff shortages and a heavy workload.

Fresh issues associated with home working, including remote learning for children, have exacerbated the problem.

He said the service is to focus on its statutory function of processing applications.

“This will benefit everyone in the long term, by allowing our officers to continue to provide the best possible service when faced with an ever increasing workload and the additional pressures of home schooling and poor connectivity,” McDiarmid said.

He said so far this year the planning department has had 45 valid planning application submissions, and seven submissions under the free, non-statutory pre-application service.

One of the recently lodged applications is for the Shetland Space Centre site at Lamba Ness, in Unst, which has already generated more than 50 separate documents and 70 comments.

This time last year the service had 21 valid application submissions and 10 pre-applications.

“That was at a time when we had two more staff and we did not have the backlog of planning applications we have currently,” McDiarmid said.

“Our duty officer service has on average six queries a day,” McDiarmid added.

“And at present we have over 60 applications that are still to be allocated to an officer, and more than 20 pre-applications to be dealt with.

“We are currently out to another round of recruitment for development management officers, but in the meantime we have the marine planning team taking on some of the development management work.

“We have also managed to get a previous team member back on a one day a week ‘loan’ from another council service to help with applications and reduce the backlog.

“Despite the shortages and the heavy workload, we have determined over 300 applications under delegated powers, with several more going for committee decision since March 2020.

“And we have also dealt with a significant number of variations and amendments to previous approvals.”

The building standards team, which is currently fully staffed, will continue to provide a duty officer service.

More details on the planning service can be found online. 

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