Following publication of a critical Audit Wales report, success in turning around the planning department is that it becomes “highly regarded” according to planning chiefs.

At a meeting of Powys County Council’s Governance and Audit committee on Friday, June 23 members grilled planning chiefs about an improvement action plan to turn the department around following the Audit Wales report.

In May, Audit Wales, an organisation whose purpose is to assure and explain how public money is being used, expressed concerns about the fundamental strategic operational and cultural weaknesses of the council’s planning service and published a list of recommendations for the council to address.

Non Jenkins of Audit Wales said: “We’re coming from a position of improvement to help the council tackle the root causes.

“It is a report with difficult messages.

“We will be back in 12 months' time to see how you’ve progressed things.”

Planning portfolio holder, Liberal Democrat Cllr Jake Berriman said: “We welcome the findings and saw opportunities for change.

“As soon as Dr Caroline Turner (chief executive) and myself were informed and had feedback, the improvement board was brought together.

“We started to put a team together to try and drive the improvement which is absolutely necessary.”

Some of the data show that Powys is still deciding planning applications well above Welsh Government timescale.

Cllr Berriman said: “I’ve been very clear that this is not about the hard numbers.

“In areas we compare quite favourably with others, what we weren’t so good at was areas of our housekeeping and communication.

“Reputationally that amounted in the outside world to a fairly poor regard for the planning service.”

Cllr Berriman mentioned enforcement of planning breaches and a “seeming inability” to deal with things “that go wrong” were viewed by the public with disapproval.

Several members of the committee asked how success in turning the planning service around will be measured.

Cllr Berriman said: “My metric is to be one of the most highly regarded planning authorities in Wales.

“You can be quick but no good, the quality won’t be there, so you need both.”

He pointed out that there had been exceptions of “isolated excellence” in the department but now “we need corporate excellence".

Cllr Berriman added: “We need to put the metrics in the plan that measures what applicants, agents, town and community council’s think of us.

“That’s the most important part of our improvement journey.”

Head of planning policy and public protection Gwilym Davies explained operationally what had been done to start the improvement.

Mr Davies said: “The planning service has developed implementation plans actions for each listed action which are being reported to the planning improvement board.”

Mr Davies explained that having the planning team returning to work in the office following the COVID-19 pandemic has had a “significant impact".

Mr Davies said: “The positives include a learning environment, viewing how others interact with agents, objectors and councillors is vital - especially when you have a service in transition with many new members.”

“Morale has an improved and there’s a sense of team.”

He added that the planning officers were working from the office more than had been expected under the new flexible working arrangements.

Cllr Gareth Ratcliffe said: “Are you confident that the service can be future-proofed for the long term and not just to get Audit Wales off our backs.”

Mr Davies said: “Yes I do think the measures will ensure the service is sustainable going forward.

“The biggest impact on the staff potentially is going to be introducing a development management team leader.

“When we restructured the senior management team, I removed the head of development management post and merged it with the head of policy in one post and it has been identified as a point of failure.”

Committee chairwoman, Lynne Hamilton thanked both Cllr Berriman and Mr Davies for the “candour” when answering the questions put to them.