Housebuilders and developers with non-major plans can ask Michael Gove to rule on planning applications instead of locally elected councillors in St Albans.

Housing minister Lee Rowley has handed a designation notice to St Albans City and District Council, effective from 9am on Wednesday, March 6.

It means planners with applications for smaller developments can start the permission process with the government’s Planning Inspectorate.

Under ordinary rules, developers must tell the district council about their projects in St Albans, Harpenden and the surrounding villages.

Councillor Chris White, the authority’s leader, described the government’s decision as “baffling” amid a falling case backlog.

According to the designation notice, Mr Rowley made his decision based on how quickly the authority deals with non-major planning applications.

Non-major planning applications include developments of between one and nine homes, buildings with a floorspace of less than 1,000 square metres (10,764 sq ft), or projects on a site less than one hectare in size.

District councils should rule on these non-major applications within eight weeks – or by an alternative deadline agreed with the applicant.

But according to the most up to date data, which covers two years until the end of December 2023, decision-makers in St Albans met their target in just 68.2 per cent of cases.

St Albans City and District Council is among the five ‘slowest’ in England to rule on non-major planning applications.

This “special measures” scenario will let developers hand their non-major plans to either the Planning Inspectorate or St Albans City and District Council.

It does not apply to “retrospective” applications, which developers make after they have built structures which they may be forced to take down.

Applications for extensions and work to a single house – “householder” applications – must also be handed to the district council in the first instance.

When the Planning Inspectorate deals with cases, inspectors will review the application and make a recommendation to the housing secretary, a post held by Conservative MP Mr Gove, who has the final say.

‘Baffling’ decision to introduce special measures amid falling backlog

Cllr White, Liberal Democrat councillor for Clarence, said: “Naturally we are disappointed, given that the council is confident that we have a robust plan in place to deal with the current backlog in planning applications.

“Our hardworking staff are dedicated to delivering an effective planning service and the Council is already making steady and welcome progress in the right direction.

“The team has worked hard to reduce the backlog which has resulted in a reduction from 480 cases to 300 cases since October last year.

“Action has also been taken to implement recommendations made by the Planning Advisory Service (a Local Government Association service) which visited the council in November to undertake a review of the service.

“They are aware of our improvement plan.

“Indeed, the government has recently provided additional funding through the Planning Skills Development Fund which means we have been able to plan for a greater number of staff to tackle the planning backlog.

“This funding was conditional on our improvement plan.

“It is therefore baffling why the government has chosen this moment to initiate the designation process.”

Cllr White added: “Things may look statistically worse before they get better.”

St Albans is not the only local authority which has landed in special measures.

Mr Rowley served Bristol City Council with a designation notice for similar reasons on March 6.

The authority in the South West misses deadlines more than any other council in the country, with 63.2 per cent of non-major cases decided within the target window.

Elsewhere in the East, Uttlesford District Council based in Saffron Walden, Essex fell into special measures in 2022 for the quality of its decision-making.

The Planning Inspectorate overturned 16.5 per cent of the authority’s major application decisions at appeal in the two years to March 2020.