The city’s over-stretched planning department is on the brink of special measures because of a logjam of applications.
Planners in Preston have been spending long hours dealing with major applications and appeals, leaving many non-major proposals untouched.
Councillors have now voted to streamline the process to try to speed things up, but could face losing control of decisions altogether.
“We’re in severe trouble in planning”, said chairman of the committee Coun Brian Rollo.
“We might not have much of a planning committee left next year if we’re not careful about it.”
Speaking at the latest full council meeting, Coun John Swindells, cabinet member for planning and regulation, said: “The amount of time that’s been spent by planning officers dealing with public inquiries and some of the very complex schemes in North West Preston has resulted in a reduction in the number of minor applications that are being dealt with.”
Councillors were asked to approve an action plan for tackling the backlog, including offering staff extra paid work, asking workers to take “minimum leave” over the next five months and appointing a planning consultant.
They were also asked to approve a £135,000 budget increase to help deliver the action plan, and set aside £40,000 to fund future appeals.
Also, they were asked to allow more decisions to be made under delegated powers, by officers, rather than by the planning committee, and to reduce the time in which councillors can “call in” applications.
But Conservative councillor Lona Smith said: “I feel this is a move to stifle the voice of the electorate. It’s not democratic to allow more delegated decisions to be made.”
Coun David Hammond also raised fears about the plans to change the scheme of delegation, which would allow officers to determine applications of up to 30 homes, and over a larger area. It is thought all the proposed changes could reduce the number of items on each planning committee agenda by a third to a half.
But Coun Hammond said: “We’ve got to represent the public, we’ve got to listen to the public, we are elected by the public to do that.”
He also said he was concerned about the limited time to call in applications.
But council leader Coun Peter Rankin said: “We are trying our damnedest to sort out our application process, we are in danger of applications going straight to the planning inspector.
“We are in a very difficult position, we are already throwing money at it that we don’t have, planning committee put us in this position.
“It is very important for the future of Preston that we get this right.”
Liberal Democrat councillor John Potter added: “If we do nothing, they take it off us.”
A report said the council had been contacted by the Planning Advisory Service who advised that, although specific details had not been confirmed, the period over which performance for non-major applications would be considered was likely to be from July 1 2014 to June 30 2016, with a possible threshold of 60 per cent.
The council’s performance for non major applications from July 1 2014 to the end of October 2015 is 45 per cent, meaning it runs the risk of being “designated” and placed into special measures unless performance can be improved within the next seven months.
It said if the designation regime for non-major applications operates in the same way as for major applications, applicants will be able to choose whether to submit proposals directly to the planning inspectorate, rather than to the council.
Coun Brian Rollo said: “Planning is in deep, deep trouble.
“People are talking about possibly going into special measures next May or June.
“That’s not a possible, if the government change the rules which they are planning to, we will go into special measures.
“We need to demonstrate improving performance for the rest of the year and once we go into special measures if we do, we need to demonstrate increasing improving performance to get us out.”
A majority of councillors voted in favour of the recommendations.