Waverley Borough Council’s floundering planning department has been left confused and rudderless by the sudden departure of its chief officer, an influential opposition Tory councillor has said.

Amid wholesale changes to Waverley’s management structure as part of its back-office merger with Guildford Borough Council, head of planning Zac Ellwood is set to become the latest council chief to leave the under-fire authority.

It comes at a time when Waverley’s planning department is ranked among the worst-performing local authorities in the country for determining planning applications – a distinction it shares with merger partner Guildford.

A council source last week told the Herald the two authorities’ record on planning was “shocking”, and they are now looking “not for just a good head of planning, but an exemplary one” to turn around both Waverley and Guildford.

However, with green spaces in Waverley already under threat by delays to the borough’s Local Plan Part Two, and appeals pending against Waverley’s refusal of several major developments in the Farnham area, deputy leader of Waverley’s Conservative opposition group has expressed grave fears the leadership void could spell disaster for the borough’s green spaces.

Carole Cockburn, councillor for The Bourne, said: “The whole situation is utterly ridiculous. The Lib Dem/Farnham Residents executive chose an arbitrary date by which to have a joint management team in place and threw out all common sense in pursuit of that political aim.

“We have now stripped all responsibility from the former head of development management. In his place, while he sits out his notice period, we have installed an interim development lead for major and minor applications for both councils, who knows little about either.

“If members have a question, officers will have to liaise by email with the former head of planning, Zac Ellwood, before answering.

“This is madness. By the time we have an interim executive head of planning development in place, there will be more delays and confusion. By the time we have a permanent executive head of planning development in place, goodness knows what state the borough will be in.

“We are also without an executive head of legal and democratic services at a time when we need more legal help than we have ever done.

“The truth is that the LibDem/Farnham Residents executive has never given the planning service the priority it deserves and Farnham’s green fields are to be sacrificed to make up for the shortfall in delivery across the borough. I am beyond angry.”

A Waverley Borough Council spokesman said: “The new joint management team structure retains the existing Waverley team manager roles and in addition, it puts in place two new executive head roles, while removing the post of head of planning and economic development.

“Two senior managers, rather than one will focus on planning development, including applications and enforcement, and regeneration and planning policy, including Local Plans.

“An interim senior manager will be appointed soon to the planning development role while we recruit permanently, and Abi Lewis has been appointed to the regeneration and planning policy role.

“Zac Ellwood continues to support us during the transition and handover, so that we have a good level of senior management and continuity supporting the service.

“Our current interim borough solicitor will also remain in this role to maintain continuity of service, while a permanent executive head of legal and democratic services is recruited.

“Over the coming months, the joint management team will be carefully reviewing all services at Waverley and Guildford, to make future services sustainable and efficient in the face of reduced funding from government and other income.

“The planning service is a high priority, and a larger overall team will help with flexibility, recruitment in a competitive marketplace and sharing expertise.”

Waverley was one of 13 authorities said to be sitting below the government’s ‘special measures’ threshold for speed of decision-making on planning applications in January.