Perhaps planning is now too important to be left to councillors?

Copied from local Government Chronicle online
Fenland urged to end planning ‘perception of undue influence’
22 May, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

A district is to overhaul its planning service after being told it needs to end perceptions of bias by councillors.

Fenland DC’s new leader John Clark (Con) said the service would be revamped following a peer review report’s recommendations.

The district is a rapidly growing area with 11,000 new homes due by 2034, but has struggled to handle planning applications.

This included a controversy in 2012 when then leader Alan Melton (Con) sacked the entire planning committee after it rejected officers’ advice and gave both Tesco and Sainsbury’s planning permission for stores on adjacent sites.

All committee members have since had to undertake training from the government’s Planning Advisory Service.

The peer review, which was undertaken by the Planning Advisory Service and the LGA was published last week.

It said: “We were told by a number of [stakeholders] that there existed a perception of undue influence over application decision making.

“A phrase that captures the concerns of some is that on at least some occasions some councillors acted as the planning agent’s spokesman.”

No evidence of corruption was offered but “even the perception of inappropriate influence undermines the objectivity and integrity of the planning decision making process”.

Separation of the “political versus operational is important to councillors, managers, staff and users and stakeholders of the planning service”, they noted. The report said the high number of successful appeals against Fenland was “an indicator of some weak decision making at planning committee”.

Reviewers were startled to find that monthly planning committee meetings took up to seven hours to deal with an average of 12 applications, including “a tea break while the public look on”. They recommended smaller applications should be handled by officers.

Cllr Clark said: “We know there are areas we need to improve. We are pleased that they have recognised some of the good work we have done and are now looking to put their recommendations into practice as speedily as possible.”

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Treat councillors with respect – or face the electoral repercussions

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Nick Golding
Their footwork ensures leaderships’ messages are passed on to a wider audience on doorsteps across the nation
1 May, 2014 | By Nick Golding

Councillors have not been generously treated by this government. Their role – which should be seen as the linchpin of local democracy – has been likened to that of a scout leader and their pensions have been taken away. More importantly than that, their local authorities must shoulder a disproportionate burden of public sector cuts and have lost even more freedom to exercise their democratic mandate in areas including planning and the setting of council tax levels.

It is unsurprising that councillors feel neglected and their morale is low. LGC’s survey on councillors’ opinions of their party leaderships, which received responses from more than 1,000 members, gives some of the best evidence so far of the strength of this discontent. In the run-up to the local elections, when it is desirable to talk up party unity and bury discontent, councillors have pointedly withheld praise from their leaderships.

This discontent is by no means confined to the governing parties. Labour councillors’ verdict on their national leadership – which recently endorsed the retention of council tax referendums – is hardly anything to write home about. The three main parties are all now tarnished by perceptions of centralisation. All three groups of members give their leaderships an approval rating of less than 40% and none of them rate relationships between their party’s central and local arms as anything higher than six out of 10.

The survey also reveals how Conservative councillors feel promises of localism made by their party when in opposition have come to nothing. “Central Office are overbearing and impose their view as they obviously know better in their ivory tower (not!). Councillors’ views in the sticks are insignificant,” said one particularly aggrieved Tory member. The party scores worst when it comes to central-local relationships. Only the Liberal Democrats – scoring so badly in the opinion polls – do worse than the Tories when it comes to ratings of party leaderships and enthusiasm to campaign in next year’s general election.

LGC inevitably received fewer responses from the smaller parties and their survey results need to be treated with caution but it is noticeable that their councillors appear far more contented. Green and Ukip members are hugely enthusiastic about their national leaderships and central-local relationships are good. It seems that less cloyingly centralised structures boost councillor contentment – although, as Ukip has frequently discovered, a lack of party discipline can undermine the national message.

It is vital that the main party leaderships are mindful of another key role of councillors – in general election campaigns. Their legwork ensures leaderships’ messages are passed on to a wider audience on doorsteps across the nation. Without them, campaigns are hampered, the electorate remains in the dark.

With the general election only a year away, party leaders have little time remaining to rally the troops. Now is the time to motivate the foot soldiers who can take their messages afar. However, a sense of disappointment pervades many of them. Only devolution of power and a new culture of respect for councillors are likely to overcome the disappointment of many.