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.”