MID Devon’s sole planning enforcement officer has left the council, meaning the department’s nearly 300-strong caseload is now being overseen by a temporary staff member.

Councillors heard that its last remaining dedicated planning enforcement officer had resigned, and that an agency worker had been hired to take on their responsibilities.

A report for Mid Devon District Council’s scrutiny committee showed that the council had 281 open planning enforcement cases midway through last year, with 95 per cent being considered low risk.

While the council receives a “large number of new cases every quarter”, it tends to close a similar amount too, it said.

Some members of the public raised issues with the planning enforcement service, with resident Louise Doyle claiming it did “not meet the needs of residents, did not create public confidence and did not act as a deterrent”.

Scrutiny Committee chair Councillor Rachel Gilmour (Liberal Democrat, Clare and Shuttern), said the public were “knocking on an open door”, adding that “we know we have a problem with enforcement”.

“We now have performance measurements, thanks to this committee, so without us, we wouldn’t have those,” she said.

“And each of us councillors here could give examples of frustration about planning enforcement from our constituents, but we could just say that because we don’t have a statutory duty to conduct planning enforcement, we won’t do it. But we are deliberately not saying that as we believe we have a duty of care to our residents.”

Cllr Gilmour pledged to ensure the planning enforcement service improves in the next 12 months.

Richard Marsh, Director of Place, said the council is not alone in struggling to hire planning enforcement officers. “The replacement of permanent staff may be challenging in terms of the availability of skilled enforcement professionals,” he said.

“It’s worth mentioning, that in a Royal Town Planning Institute survey, it found that 73 per cent of authorities were struggling to recruit to enforcement roles, so we’re far from being the only authority having difficulties,” he said.

Mr Marsh added that fewer planning applications meant that members of its planning team could be used now and again to help tackle the enforcement workload, and that resources, such as template letters, had been created to help with low-risk cases.

He said that the agency worker leading the enforcement service would focus on high-risk cases, ensuring continuity on them.

The council would usually have two full-time equivalent members of staff in its planning enforcement division, but Mr Marsh said it is reviewing how to organise its enforcement resources.

He said the enforcement division had secured a recent success by demolishing an unauthorised building in the district, and had received support from the Local Government Ombudsman over its handling of an ongoing case.

Bradley Gerrard