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Highland Greens demand action on ‘unfair’ backlog of planning breaches

By Ally Tibbitt

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More than 100 of the undisclosed cases were in the Inverness area.
More than 100 of the undisclosed cases were in the Inverness area.

A Greens Highland councillor has called for more staff to tackle a huge backlog of unresolved planning enforcement cases across the region.

At a full council meeting last week, Councillor Chris Ballance called for officials to assign more staff to enforcing planning rules, after The Inverness Courier used Freedom of Information laws to reveal that there were more than 300 undisclosed planning enforcement cases throughout the Highlands.

More than 100 of the undisclosed cases were in the Inverness area. A total of 30 of the secret enforcement cases across the Highlands have been open for more than three years.

After the administration revealed that there were three members of staff allocated to managing planning enforcement cases throughout the whole Highland Council area, with plans under way to recruit a fourth, Cllr Ballance asked: “Should we just tell developers that they don’t need to bother about planning conditions because actually we won’t enforce them?”

In response, council leader Raymond Bremner said: “I think if Councillor Balance would reflect on my time on the north planning committee and the amount of times I’d referred to the fact that if we had the ability to employ hundreds of planning enforcement officers I think we would.

“But I think we have to get everything in balance in terms of what’s affordable and what’s available. There is no way that I would be advocating out there that if you have planning conditions that there is a consideration because we don’t have enough planning enforcement officers that you can get away with ignoring them.”

Planning enforcement officers have been described by environmental charity Planning Democracy as “critical” for public health and safety. Planners make sure that property developers are following planning laws – and can issue fines or take developers to court if they break the rules.

The area with the largest number of secret planning probes is the Aird and Loch Ness ward where there were 50 enforcement cases hidden from public view.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Ballance, who represents the Aird and Loch Ness area, said that budgets would always be a factor.

“But the fact remains that Highland Council simply does not have enough staff for the task in hand,” he said.

“This backlog is unfair to neighbours and complainants – and to developers as well, who have investigations hanging over them for years.

“Scots planning law favours the developer over the community already. It is really important for communities and neighbours that the conditions which are imposed are enforced. Highland Council planning department is the busiest planning department in Scotland, and as more and more large applications are coming in, this team needs to be supplemented.”

Councillor Ken Gowans, chairman of the economy and infrastructure committee, said: “The planning service is currently looking to recruit additional staff in a very challenging market. As the team grows in line with development applications, we need to consider how we address any areas where more staff may be needed. Meantime, the team is performing well. I am not certain that Councillor Ballance’s experience is generally reflective of everyone’s experience.”

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