Only local government can break the developer’s strangle hold on the housing market

Copied from Sunday Telegraph Sunday 16 April 2017

Economic Agenda
The key to opening up the housing market

By Liam Halligan

For decades across much of the UK far too few homes have been built. The average house now costs almost eight times annual earnings – an all-time record. In London and the South East, of course, this ratio is even higher.

Much of “generation rent” is simply unable to buy a home. For millions of youngsters, even those with professional qualifications and good jobs, property ownership is an ever more distant dream. Ten years ago, 64pc of 25 to 34-year-olds, the crucial family-forming age group, owned their own home. In 2015, it was 39pc.

Three fifths of an entire generation of young adults is locked out of the property market. Over half of first-time buyers get assistance from “the bank of Mum and Dad”, rising to two thirds in the South East. The housing market, once a source of social mobility, has become a source of growing resentment.
Part of the solution, as we so often hear from our politicians, is to “get Britain building again”. Yet the March PMI construction index, which monitors the UK’s leading building firms, last week pointed to a housebuilding slowdown. During the final three months of last year, 2pc fewer new homes were completed in England than the same period in 2015.

Over 2016 as a whole, while the construction of 5pc more homes was started than the year before, the number of new-builds actually completed was 1pc lower. Just 168,000 new-builds came to market across the UK as a whole in 2016 – way below the 250,000 needed annually to meet demand. The UK has built, on average, 100,000 too few homes a year since the 2008 financial crisis. For decades before that, housebuilding was also too low. The last time we did build a quarter of a million homes was back in 1980 – and 113,000 of those were council houses. With council-housebuilding now barely a few thousand each year, the UK’s housing needs are largely reliant on the private sector.

Although few homes are built, the UK’s three largest developers still report surging profits. Barratt saw a 40pc rise to £295m during the second half of 2016 – despite completing fewer homes. Taylor Wimpey made £733m last year, up 22pc. Persimmon’s full-year profits were £775m, 23pc higher.

These three developers now build a quarter of all new homes, with the eight largest accounting for over half. Small developers, suppliers of two thirds of new homes in the 1980s now build less than a quarter. It’s hard not to conclude the big housebuilders, who control so much of the land granted planning permission, are deliberately building slowly, to keep prices and profits up. Waiting to build creates a shortage and means their extensive land holdings also rise in value.

The “big developers” have “a stranglehold on supply”, said Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, at last October’s Conservative Party conference. They are “sitting on land banks”, while “delaying build-out”. The House of Lords economic affairs committee has also weighed in, saying the UK housebuilding industry has “all the characteristics of an oligopoly”. These two statements alone, in my view, mean our competition authorities should take a closer look. The UK’s housebuilding giants deny any go-slow, of course.

When the long-anticipated housing White Paper was published in February, some of us were disappointed at the lack of bold measures. While admitting “the UK’s housing market is broken”, there was no mention of a previous pledge to build a million new houses by the end of this Parliament – so, by 2020. That’s probably because, in the words of Paul Cheshire, a professor at the London School of Economics and probably the UK’s top housing academic, there is “more chance of me living on the moon”.

‘It’s hard not to conclude the big builders are deliberately building slowly, to keep prices and profits up’

Since the White Paper was published, though, having followed various behind-the-scenes struggles across Westminster and Whitehall, I’m pleased to report a little-noticed development that may soon help unlock UK housebuilding.

This column has previously called for the creation of powerful Housing Development Corporations (HDCs) – state-initiated bodies that acquire land, grant themselves planning permission, selling on the land in parcels to private developers. The HDCs then use the “planning gain” from the sharp rise in land value to fund new schools, hospitals, roads and so on. If new housing means local public services are significantly enhanced, there would be far fewer objections from existing residents. Variations of this model have been successfully used in countries from Germany and Holland to Singapore and South Korea.
Under existing “New Towns” legislation, national government can set up HDCs – which, crucially, can buy land at “existing use” value. Arable land, for instance, is purchased as arable land, bringing a healthy upside once residential planning is granted – guaranteeing ring-fenced cash for extra local infrastructure. That’s far better than current “Section 106” negotiations, under which powerful housebuilders hold most of the cards and often spend less on local amenities than councils expect.

What’s new and interesting is that an amendment has been made to new housing legislation allowing local government, with central government permission, to set up HDCs. Councils can buy land for a large development, partnering with the private sector if needs be – but, crucially, the planning gain receipts stay at the local level.

Such cash can then be used to build local amenities or even give residents a council tax rebate, which should make housebuilding much more popular.

This could massively empower local government, while finally sparking the housebuilding the UK so desperately needs. “If councils are considering a sizeable development,” says an insider at the Department of Communities and Local Government, “they should give us a call”.

Seems I could become one of the last planning committee chairman under this government’s plans

Housing bill amendments branded ‘privatisation of planning’
5 JANUARY, 2016 BY DAVID PAINE

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Concerns have been raised that the government is privatising the planning service after it tabled a number of major last-minute changes to the Housing and Planning Bill.

Amendments put forward by the government this morning include plans to let developers choose who processes planning applications.

Also planned are changes to let local authorities set their own planning fees, a new section 106 dispute resolution process, and giving ministers the power to force councils to sell off land.

MPs are due to debate the bill, and 100 pages of proposed amendments, in the House of Commons this afternoon.

New clauses proposed by communities secretary Greg Clark will allow planning applications to be processed by an approved “designated person” if an applicant “so chooses”. While local authorities will still be responsible for the final decision on any planning application, regulations will in due course outline the circumstances under which an external recommendation by a “designated person” will be “binding” on a local authority.
Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town & Country Planning Association, called the amendments “extremely controversial”.

“It raises the prospect whereby the advice of a private consultant on a planning application could be more or less binding on a planning committee,” Mr Ellis told LGC. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that what’s happening here is a fundamental assault on the public interest objectives of planning.”

A part of the amendments will force local planning authorities to share relevant information, such as the planning history of the land to which an application relates, with the designated person as well as the communities secretary.

Mr Ellis called the amendments “very worrying” and added: “People have talked about the privatisation of planning services and I think that’s probably what this is.”

He added: “I do wonder if people, particularly local councillors, who haven’t got their heads stuck in the Housing and Planning Bill will wake up to a particularly nasty shock over what this legislation has resulted in overall.”

Another government-proposed amendment will let councils locally set planning fees. The District Councils Network has repeatedly called for that, and in a briefing document on the latest amendments the Local Government Association voiced its support.

However, the proposed wording of the legislation gives the communities secretary the power to “prevent the charging of fees that he or she considers excessive”.

Plans to amend the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 and give the communities secretary the power to direct councils, and other public authorities, to dispose of the land they hold were condemned by the LGA.

“Councils are best able to manage locally their assets to meet the needs of communities and are on track to bring forward significant levels of development on their land up to 2020,” it said. “Local authorities should retain the flexibility to manage their own assets.”

Another proposed new clause would give the communities secretary the power to impose “restrictions or conditions on the enforceability” of how many affordable homes, including ‘starter homes’, local authorities want built on a site.

The LGA said that should be for councils to “determine locally”.

The LGA also expressed concern over government plans to introduce a new dispute resolution procedure in relation to section 106 negotiations. The amendments will allow for an appointed individual to oversee disputes.

“Strengthening requirements for the upfront negotiation of S106 agreements would be a more effective means of avoiding delays than offering an alternative route for resolution,” the LGA said.

A planning committee doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons

A salutary tale for all those planning committee councillors, who continue to make ‘political’ decisions on planning applications.
It’s a lengthy article, but the lesson to be learned from it is a very simple one – there’s no place in the development control process for the Localism agenda.
It’s particularly disappointing to read the chairman of this council’s strategic planning committee comments. Assuming that’s this not the title of their committee for determining planning applications, he’s failed to acknowledge the completely different roles of these two committees.
The strategic planning committee is the one that produces the council’s Local Plan and the one charged with challenging job of balancing public opinion and national planning guidance and policies.
If the public wants to influence the planning process, then they need to do so during the plan making stage, which is what, is a slightly obscure fashion, the Localism agenda directs. Waiting until a planning application is submitted, to object to a major housing development, or to a proposal for a large industrial site, is far too late and unlikely to succeed, at least in principle, no matter how loud, or well organised the public outcry is. Yes, the planners will listen to concerns about the details, or even about the layout of the development,Mobutu if the land to be built on is identified in the council’s adopted Local Plan, then the game is almost certainly already lost.
As the article details, failing to apply the council’s planning policies will cost the local tax payer dearly and still not win councillors any votes.
Finally, the appeals process isn’t perfect, but is an essential element in the planning process, especially given the aberrant behaviour of some council planning committees.

Cornwall Council’s bill for costs rises as developers win more planning appeals. By West Briton | Posted: December 18, 2014

The number of successful appeals over refusal of planning permission, where costs have been awarded against Cornwall Council, is rising astronomically.

The figure for the amount the council must pay to cover the developers’ costs in fighting appeals against it is on target for an eight-fold increase this year, and the process has already cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

According to the chairman of the council’s strategic planning committee, Rob Nolan, the local authority is being penalised by the Government for turning down applications because it is going against national policies – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was introduced in March 2012 to help speed up house-building.

“The Government has said it wants to build its way out of the recession, and the NPPF has been described as a developer’s charter,” he says.

“At the same time, the Government bangs on about localism, giving people the impression they have a say in local development.

“Yet when we listen to local views, and refuse planning permission on what we think are sound planning grounds, we find the (Government’s) planning inspector not only turns around our decision on appeal, but grants costs against us.

“Until recently costs were only awarded against the council where we had been cavalier in our decisions.

“But now it seems they’re being used to punish us.”

Between April 2013 and March 2014, costs were awarded against the council in only eight cases. In the past six months alone, costs have been awarded against the local authority after 16 appeals.

“This is a worrying trend,” he says. “We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

“We want to listen to local people, we want to do what is right for Cornwall, but we can’t keep paying out awards of costs to developers.”

According to the figures from Cornwall Council, released following a freedom of information request from the West Briton, the amount of costs awarded against it – which it must pay to the developers that appeal – in 2013/2014, was just £47,000.

In the first six months of this financial year alone, the appeal payout bill was £174,000.

The council has even been penalised financially in cases when the appellant was not successful.

Most appeals are dealt with in writing between the appellant, the council’s team and the Planning Inspectorate, a government agency in Bristol.

But some go to public inquiry, with a full hearing, which escalates costs drastically because of the fees of legal teams on both sides, which often includes a QC. These inquiries can be held locally and last up to two weeks.

One such public inquiry against the refusal of plans for 12 industrial units at Pool Fields in Falmouth landed the council with a £27,000 bill after it lost the appeal.

The planning consultant on this application was CSA Architects. Its managing director, Justin Dodge, said it has received £87,000 in costs awarded against the council from three appeals alone within the past year.

He adds that another planning consultancy was awaiting confirmation of a payout in the region of £200,000 from a successful appeal against the refusal of a development of 100 houses at Upper Chapel in Launceston earlier this year.

He says that, since the NPPF, and in the absence of the Cornwall Local Plan, which would set out guidelines for granting or refusing planning permission, consultants like CSA were winning more and more appeals. Costs were increasingly being awarded against the council – a trend which looks set to continue.

“We have not needed to appeal historically,” he says. “It has only been in the last 18 months, since the new cavalier planning committees were appointed, that we have needed to take more of our cases to appeal.

“They have a complete and utter disregard for policy. They are reckless and out of control.”

During the appeal process, the appellant’s argument is usually upheld when the council has acted unreasonably.

According to Mr Dodge, the reason for CSA’s success in recent cases is that the council failed to provide enough evidence to support its reasons for refusal – which is judged at appeal as unreasonable.

“It is particularly frustrating when the professional planning officer from Cornwall Council makes a recommendation which is completely disregarded and overturned by the (councillors on the) planning committee, without any compelling rationale,” he says.

“Sadly, this has become commonplace in the last 18 months, with most committee decisions being against officer recommendations and therefore we expect to pursue more planning appeals than ever before.”

But Mr Dodge adds that most of his clients spend, on average, £15,000 to £20,000 on submitting an application, and some can spend as much as £100,000 on launching an appeal against a refusal decision, spending heavily on legal teams and consultants.

“We know planning policy inside out,” he says. “This is our business. We don’t go into planning applications light-heartedly.

“But the true cost of a planning appeals can never be fully established, including the council’s own time and resources, as well as the time delays to the projects affected by the process.”

Since the NPPF was introduced, Cornwall Council has been developing the Cornwall Local Plan – a blueprint for the amount of development and where it should be located (see panel).

This policy document, which has received input from local town and parish councils, developers and members of the public, is due to be debated at full council next month, before being sent to the Government for approval.

No-one knows how long this process will take.

Until the plan is approved, says Councillor Neil Hatton, Cornwall Council member for Constantine, Budock and Mawnan, near Falmouth, it is “open season” for developers.

“The NPPF is there to support sustainable development,” he says.

“It has certainly encouraged a lot more people to put in applications and challenge the system through the appeals inspectorate – people are testing it out.

“A lot more appeals have been based on the sustainable argument because of the lack of the local plan – it is more difficult to refuse these.

“Cornwall’s weakness is the local plan [or lack of it].

“It has not been put to the Government for approval and, while it carries a little weight, it doesn’t carry a huge amount at the moment.

“It is open season for developers at the moment without the policies in place under the local plan.”

On Tuesday of last week Mr Hatton attended an appeal against Cornwall Council’s refusal of planning permission for 153 houses on Bickland Water Road. CSA was the planning consultant on the project. After a hearing in Truro and a site visit, the planning inspector’s decision is likely to be made next month.

Planning consultant Stephen Payne says the NPPF was designed to encourage “more positive decision-making” regarding rural and urban growth – to grant more planning applications – particularly with regard to housing.

“We didn’t find that quite to the extent that we expected,” he says.

“There was a change of attitude initially. But gradually they have fallen back into their old ways.

“We are seeing worse and worse decisions as we are going along.

“And it was disappointing that when we got to appeal they didn’t follow the Government’s lead.

“We would expect the planning inspectorate to toe the Government line.

“There are a lot of developments that should have been built that have not been.”

For Councillor Nolan, the whole system is flawed.

“I’m not sure that the appeal system does work well,” he says.

“Cornwall has a unique character and a delicate infrastructure – we cannot keep up with unlimited development, and an inspector who might be based in Swindon may apply judgements that work for Swindon, but not for St Ives.

“Essentially, inspectors are too remote, and not accountable for their decisions.”

Last month the council approved budget cuts of £196 million over the next four years. This, he says, only adds to the problem.

“Budget cutbacks are already causing problems,” he adds.

“Officers have a heavy caseload, and ironically it’s the developers that are complaining that it’s taking too long to process applications.”

He says that Mr Dodge’s comments would “ring hollow” with residents of Launceston, Gwinear, Goonhavern, Truro, Probus and many other communities who have fought, or are fighting what he calls “inappropriate developments driven by developers’ needs, rather than sensible planned growth”.

Neither Phil Mason, the council’s head of service for planning, housing and regeneration, nor Councillor Edwina Hannaford, Cabinet member for environment, heritage and planning, were available for comment.

Read more: http://www.westbriton.co.uk/Cornwall-Council-s-costs-rises-developers-win/story-25738782-detail/story.html#ixzz3NZgKfiD2
Follow us: @westbriton on Twitter | westbriton on Facebook

A lesson in planning from the Germans?

We will probably never experience a totally pain free development process in this country; nimbyism has become too ingrained in our culture. However, we could go a long way towards reducing the almost universal resistance we currently experience, to new housing, by actually delivering the high quality development, instead of just talking about it.

The question is, how do you ‘force’ developers to build homes that have suitable room sizes, enough inside storage, outside storage for wheelie bins and bicycles, sufficient off street parking – and of course, look good?

In defence of developers, they often start on the back foot, by paying too much for the land they want to build on.  It’s easy to suggest that this is the developers’ fault and that they should just refuse to pay the inflated prices demanded by the landowners.  However, developers have businesses to run and would soon be on the breadline if they held out for a more sensible price, as there will always be another developer willing to pay.

So what’s the answer? Whilst there are many who distrust much about Europe – mainly because of the EU – we do admire much of what the Germans do and the way they do it. As well as their black and white traffic laws, highly efficient manufacturing base and litter free streets, the Germans also seem to have a planning system, that delivers high quality housing.

They do this is two ways. Firstly, they use zones of development, within which building can take place without the need to go through the sort of planning processes we use in this country. Of course, underpinning these zones, there are a raft of design and development guides, that have to be applied to the build.

The second thing they do and the one that must surely allow them to deliver high quality development, along with the required infrastructure and facilities, is exercise a degree of control on the price of land.  They do this by ensuring that there is enough of it available to satisfy demand, thereby avoiding the sort of price inflation that always happens when something is in short supply and high demand.

I suspect the present government has attempted to mimic the German system to some extent, by requiring all local authorities to have a Local Plan identifying a five year supply of housing land.   In addition to this five year land supply, councils must also have an ‘objectively assessed need’ of what housing is required for their area.   In practical terms, this means that the council can’t just produce a Local Plan and stick it on a shelf the next 20 years, as seems to be the passed practice.

Of course, this housing needs assessment and five year housing land supply requirement has not gone down well with the majority of councils, especially those in areas where house prices are high, such as the south east and rural areas adjacent to large cities.

The politicians in these councils are screaming blue murder about concreting over the countryside, the loss of the green belt and urban sprawl, all this whilst ignoring the increasing demand for housing and the ever increasing difficult for young people trying to get on the housing ladder.

Frustratingly, the government has failed to explain the thinking behind the changes introduced by the National Planning Policy Framework, fuelling the suspicion that these changes are more about the bank accounts of the developers, than providing homes that people can afford. This suspicion is further reinforced, by the trump card government handed to developers, in the form of a viability test.

The viability argument allows developers to wriggle out of providing affordable housing, community facilities and just about anything else they believe will, according to them, make the development financially unviable. Which of course rolls us all the way back to the price paid for the land in the first place. If you provide enough of anything to satisfy the demand, then the cost of the commodity on offer, in this case land, not only remains stable , but often reduces in real terms. Clearly, we’re not ‘making’ any more land, so it has its own dynamic when it comes to value. As such, it wouldn’t be helpful to compare it to something that was in the past expensive to produce and therefore expensive to buy, but now has become affordable to all, such as the simple cup of tea, but it does help to set the scene. Provide enough of anything and then make it readily available to those who want it and the price of it finds an affordable level. That seems to be the very simple rule the Germans have used.

Something every planning committee already knows

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Homeowners prevent housebuilding, report finds
24 October, 2014 | By David Paine

House-building rates are lower in local authority areas with higher proportions of homeowners, according to analysis by the Institute for Government (IfG).

The report,‘Housing that Works for All – The Political Economy of Housing in England’, covered the period from 2001 to 2011.

It follows the publication of the Lyons housing review, which outlined how up to 200,000 new homes a year could be built by the year 2020.

The IfG said there was a risk of planning decisions being biased in favour of current homeowners.

This was in part because of a lack of city or region-wide planning co-ordination, which meant planning policy operated “exclusively at the local level and is responding to the interests of local residents”.

It said new developments often created new infrastructure costs for councils, and extra demand for public services, yet the increase in revenues from developments was “limited”.

The report also warned that the requirement for planning permission to be granted for any change of land use made decisions “slower and more uncertain”. Homeowners were among the most likely groups to oppose new homes, it said.

Miguel Coelho, IfG fellow and co-author of the paper, said: “A common accusation is that planning decisions tend to cater for the interests of current homeowners, rather than allow for a wider, more balanced set of interests. New empirical presented in this paper lend support to this hypothesis.

“Our analysis shows in particular that in the decade to 2011, housing stock grew significantly less in local authorities where there were higher proportions of owner-occupiers amongst local households.

“Credible proposals to reform the planning system should address this problem and ensure that planning decisions allow for the full breadth of interests affected by development.”

However, the paper acknowledged reforming the planning system would be difficult.

It claimed there had, so far, been a lack of public support to do so, and that the wealth of households and health of the UK financial sector had “become inextricably intertwined with the macro-economy, thus undermining the case for fast, radical reform”.

It also claimed that “successive governments have struggled to find a sensible balance between regional/national planning co-ordination and local democratic legitimacy”.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Is localism preventing the development of new homes?

Copied from housing network website article by Hannah Fearn
Friday 1 August 2014 10.33 BST

They are both government priorities, but involving communities in planning decisions appears incompatible with housebuilding

Redbridge Council has taken planning decisions out of the hands of elected councillors.

It was the big idea of the coalition government, a cornerstone of localism, a foolproof way of getting things done without scaring off the traditionalists in the Conservative heartland. But after just three years, is neighbourhood planning already dead?

There are few signs of life left in the policy. Nick Boles sounded the first notes of funeral dirge when he admitted that the scheme, which involves local people designing and signing off new housing schemes, was too complex to function. He found that multiple objections from local people actually holds up the development process (who’d have thought it?). Instead he called on councils to who had already given up and come up with a better idea to share their it with other authorities.

The Financial Times reported this week that Kate Barker, who conducted a review of housebuilding for the Labour government in 2004, does not blame government policy for the slow rate of development in recent years. Instead, she says, it’s partly the result of nimbyism.

The turning of the tide against localism in planning goes even further: now even councillors can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. In Redbridge, the council has ruled that all future decisions on planning applications will be made by staff in the planning department because they have the skills and training to ensure they are qualified to make the right decisions; elected members simply do not. Redbridge also claims the move will save £45,000 a year.

Council leader Jas Athwal told his local newspaper that councillors added nothing to the planning process. “These planning officers have a huge amount of education and it seems egotistic that councillors can overrule them,” he said.

Meanwhile, central government is meddling again: it’s offering a slice of a £3m funding pot to councils with the largest number of planning applications for new homes in the pipeline, to speed things up and get those homes built. It’s a reward, but it’s also another opportunity to bypass the planning process that this government put in place.

This is not the first example of government finding new ways to get out of its own promises. Plans to create a new generation of garden cities mean the establishment of development corporations or sub-regional planning bodies which will be tasked with getting these new settlements built; there will be little room for debate once the decision to create a new town has been agreed upon.

In fact, writing for Planning magazine, former Whitehall advisor and planning consultant Ben Kochan says that the best way to win approval for a new garden city is to involve a whole host of organisations which are about as far removed from the neighbourhood planning process as you can get – not just urban development corporations, but also local enterprise partnerships, which give the business community funding and powers to boost economic growth.

It’s somewhat inevitable that in focusing on the end result – seeing more homes built in areas where there is an urgent need – will mean taking difficult decisions that not everyone in the community welcomes. Removing these decisions from the responsibility of local councillors (or simply by circumventing the planning process) will either be seen as a wise attempt to force progress or a cynical attempt to avoid blame for unpopular developments.

Whether you’re in favour of neighbourhood planning or not, it is being quietly removed from the pre-development process in the run-up to the 2015 election. This might be a good thing for housing in terms of numbers, but it’s also a blow to the heart of democratic localism.

Personally, I don’t agree with Redbridge, if they have indeed completely killed of their committee, as officers don’t always give the right weight to the concerns of non-planning experts. Local people are ‘experts’ when it comes to local concerns and local knowledge and you ignore this at your peril.

I do however agree that the system is becoming too vague, the government’s approach far too developer friendly and the overall process too open to abuse by vested interests, to remain as it is.
Telling councillors that they can still make the decisions, even if they’ve campaigned against it. Also suggesting that being pre-disposed to an opinion, is not the same as pre-determination, is complete nonsense and falls apart as defence, as soon as the high court gets involved.

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.”