Natural England has managed to continue to deliver high quality service in relation to timely response to planning applications over the last year, but extreme resource constraints are affecting performance on other areas of its planning brief, according to its latest report to the communities department (MHCLG).
Overall, the report, dated June but released on 22 July, found that Natural England "provided a high level of service in the context of higher volume and resourcing challenges, whilst continuing to invest in transforming our approach to benefit customers and the environment".
The report, which assesses annual performance of Natural England as a statutory consultee in the planning system, says NE received 15,688 planning application consultations in 2018-19, "a significant increase in volume over the previous year", yet still "responded to 96.76% of these consultations within 21 days or otherwise agreed deadlines". This was a slight increase on the previous year’s 95.94%. It adds that extensions to deadlines had been requested for 556 planning application consultations (3.54%), which was consistent with the performance in previous years.
But elsewhere the strains of a 47% cut in its budget since 2010 are showing.
It reports that average response times to planning application consultations was 13.53 days, a reduction on the previous year. There were also 1,121 pre-application consultations, either direct from developers or via Local Planning Authorities, but only 81.45% of these consultations received a response within 21 days or otherwise agreed deadlines. "This figure is below the level achieved in previous years, with resourcing challenges affecting performance" despite a slight fall in submissions, it points out. It had managed 82.13% in 2017-18.
NE says that: "Revisions to processes and further stabilisation in resourcing will help return performance upwards above 90% and to the levels achieved in previous years," but elaborates no further.
On the question of resources, it points out that: "Resourcing challenges are impacting on Natural England’s ability to advise on medium risk development management casework and to engage at strategic level with local planning authorities and other partners. This is a reflection of declining grant-in-aid and an increase in the volume of planning application consultations."
It adds that: "Work is ongoing to move to a funding model which enables Natural England to invest in the staff capacity and skills needed to engage effectively with the planning system to deliver environmental gains at strategic plan level and on high risk and opportunity development proposals."
Much will now depend on the next spending round, with implications for both conservation and developers awaiting decisions, not least in the context of the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plant and Net Gain policies to boost sustainable development. But the fact that NE has requested a 19.2% cut in its grant-in-aid ahead of the fast-track spending round just announced does not augur well.