Porter about to bow out of LGA? But his one liners will live on it seems

Local Government Chronicle online
Friday 06 May 2016
LGC briefing: Local elections analysed
Commentary on the local election results

Political earthquake of the day: Breaking: Porter predicts Tories have lost control of LGA

Under chaos theory a hurricane can ensue in China as a result of something as minor and apparently unrelated as a butterfly flapping its wings over New Mexico.

On a similar principle, something as insignificant as a set of local elections in which virtually no seats changed control is on the cusp of causing a political earthquake in Westminster.

The political earthquake takes the form of a change in power at the Local Government Association but the butterfly may be composed of slightly more than a set of only moderately compelling electoral contests. As will be explained below, political skulduggery lurked behind its local democracy wings.

To understand this chaos we need to cast our minds back a year when the results of the local elections left the LGA on a political knife-edge. The Conservative group came out slightly above Labour after all of the calculations were undertaken to determine which party was in the ascendancy.

Within the past 24 hours it seemed likely the Tories would retain LGA control. Few people believed Jeremy Corbyn’s prediction that he would gain seats and the first results last night showed the Conservatives doing better than Labour. All seemed set for another year of Gary Porter leading the LGA.

Cllr Porter – a rare politician, noticeable for his plain speaking – has won plaudits for his honesty and, should his term of office come to an end, he may well leave us with as many memorable quotes as his predecessors managed since the LGA came into being. This is no disrespect to the LGA’s former chairs, more a compliment to Cllr Porter’s outspokenness. His putting the District Councils Network “on the naughty step” for arguing its members should retain their current portion of business rates will live long in the memory.

Cllr Porter’s demise has not been caused by the electorate turning against the Tories – the parties have at the time of writing lost an almost identical (but fairly negligible) number of seats – but the arithmetic turning against them.

The earthquake has been the result of Sheffield City Council unexpectedly deciding to re-join the LGA, just before the deadline to do so last night. With the LGA’s power balance determined by the number of councillors each party holds and the population they serve, the readmission of a city with a population in excess of half a million people could be crucial.

Sheffield had previously been one of a small number of councils, including Barnet, Wandsworth and Bromley LBCs, which decided against LGA membership. Its decision to re-join the association shortly before a final deadline of 10pm seemed to catch most off guard.

The complex calculations that determine who wins LGA control have yet to be determined but Cllr Porter thought Sheffield would be the deciding factor. He told LGC’s David Paine: “I will be surprised if the LGA is still Conservative controlled by the time the final count is done.”

He may also consider it unfortunate that the remaining councils which are not LGA members are Conservative strongholds. None of the three Tory-dominated London boroughs had the political cunning – or the financial commitment – to opt to pay to join the LGA at the last minute. Even if they decide to join today, their membership will not be considered in the calculations until after next year’s election.

In the past 24 hours, announcements that have been timed to coincide with the polls have proved more significant than the polls themselves.

Of the 124 councils with elections, just four have so far changed political control.

But we have seen a new frontrunner emerge in the race to be Greater Manchester’s elected mayor in the form of Andy Burnham. The shadow home secretary let it be known that he was considering swapping national politics for local politics at 10pm, as the polls were closing.

While his move is being analysed by the national media for indicating frontbench despair with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, it also signifies a sea change: suddenly local politics offer prominent politicians an alternative career path to Westminster.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, it emerged that the government is to U-turn on its plan to force all schools to become academies. Many councils feared the move would result in them being unable to meet their duty to ensure all children had a school place.

This is one set of elections in which the burying of bad news (Mr Burnham’s possible departure from the frontbench is clearly bad for Mr Corbyn and the announcement had to be timed to minimise the damage) and political opportunism has triumphed over the ballot box.

Should Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes emerge as the new Labour LGA chair he will be hoping that Barnet, Bromley or Wandsworth do not attempt the same trick as Sheffield in a year’s time.

Independent candidates fire blanks

bazookaThe two independents candidates, standing against myself and Christine Lawton on 7th May in the district council elections, have delivered their first election leaflets.

As always, leaflets from the opposition are essential reading, if only to understand where they are coming from campaign wise. In the case of these two, there are few if any surprises. There are however some clear misunderstandings when it comes to what can and cannot be achieved as a district councillor, but given that they are new at this, it’s understandable. I am however, not so understanding as to allow them to pass without comment, this is after all politics and there’s an election to win.

I’ll deal with their suggested policies first, before dealing with the ever present irony that is the ‘Independent Group’, to which they have attached themselves.

These are from the first ‘independent’ candidate’s leaflet.

1. A temporary cut in business rates to encourage small businesses.

Setting the business rates is not a district council function and cannot be done. The best we can do, is offer discretionary relief to a limited range of activities, such as the only pub in a village, a small village shop, or a non-profit making social club venue.

2. Waste and recycling collections to stay weekly

This has been the Conservative group’s position since it took control in 1999 and this has not changed.   Neither can it change in the near future, as we accepted grant funding from central government on the basis of retaining weekly collections for at least 5 years and we’ve no intention of giving back the £1.7m received!

3. A really good garden waste collection to serve gardeners in the town.

You wouldn’t intentionally offer a really bad garden waste collection, would you?

Only in the town, what about everybody else? What about every other town come to that?   This independent candidate is beginning to think and sound like a parish councillor already.

We are already working on a paid for green waste collection. This needs a significant outlay in capital and a more detailed survey, to identify potential users, will be carried out soon.

4. Make our environment as litter free as we can …….not just in run up to election…

Can you call a campaign that has been running for nearly 9 months, an election ploy? I think not. Had central government confirmed the local government finance settlement at the normal time and not the eleventh hour and 59th minute, as they did, we would have been able to start the South Holland Pride campaign some 12 months ago. This was the plan, but we could only find enough funding to appoint a part time enforcement officer at that time.

5. Better community policing

Yet another area over which the district council has no control. Lincolnshire Police raise their own precept via the council tax. This year that was increased by 1.9% to £197.64 SHDC’s council tax take was reduced by 0.5% to £154.84 for a band D property.

6. Better value for money when looking at provision of services….

I’d love to comment on this one, but I haven’t got a clue what its referring to!

7. More thought to planning applications, so that they benefit the town and not just the applicant…..

This is another one that’s got me guessing at to its meaning, let alone its ambition. The planning system isn’t there as a way of getting goodies, from the people who apply for planning permission, unless those ‘goodies’ are essential to making the application acceptable in planning terms.

Moving on to the second ‘independent’.

This one makes some pledges which reflect some double standards and a clear misunderstanding of what the overall role of a district councillor is.

1. I will not have any hidden agendas

My personal experience says otherwise.

2. I will work with any councillor…………..acting in the best interests of Wygate Park and Spalding!

Just because the ward is called Spalding Wygate, doesn’t mean it just covers the Wygate Park area, where this candidate happens to live.

As well as being limited to half the ward, the horizon of this independent only stretches as far as the boundaries of Spalding it seems.

As a district councillor, your role, first and foremost, is to represent the interests of all South Holland residents, not just those who voted for you, or happen to live in the ward you represent. This applies even when a decision might have a negative impact in your ward.

Some of the issues this candidate will support.

3. Pride in South Holland. My answer to this claim is the same as for the other independent and our manifesto actually contains a commitment to continue the campaign.

4. Highways – poor state of some pavements. This is a county council function. You don’t need to be a district councillor to get these fixed. Just report them on line, I do so regularly.

5. Road safety – road markings. Again, a county council function, not the district.

I submitted a defect report on these makings over 12 months ago. The answer from highways was very clear. It is not their policy to maintain any form of road markings within residential estates, when those roads only serve residents and have no other purpose, as this would not be a good use of their limited budgets. The road marking in question were put there by the developer, during initial build and were never a requirement of the detailed plans approval, or of the highways adoption process.

6. Community – Support for events…………Nothing new here, as all Spalding councillors have made financial contributions to such events.

7. Traffic – Stating the blindingly obvious here.  Again, something only the county council can rectify. Spalding Town Forum are already extremely active in pressing for a solution.

8. Planning – local services must keep pace.  Nothing offered here, other than a statement of wishful thinking. The planning system has no powers to require developers to provide funding for local services as a matter of law. Everything we achieve, outside of the planning policy requirements, is done by active negotiation and persuasion.

9. Licensing policy changes – another piece of wishful thinking, without any consideration of the reality. Like planning, the licensing system is controlled by national laws and policies, that offer the district council little leeway when it comes to resisting the granting of new licenses.

Now turning back to the various claims made about being unfettered and un-whipped independents.

The back of both very similar looking leaflets, has the same heading and the same piece of text, ‘A message from Angela Newton……..Independent Councillor and Leader of South Holland the Independent Group.’ ……………….

So, having declared themselves as intending to be, ‘Independent Councillors’ (sic) and not tied to any Political Party (sic) (they do like their capital letters don’t they!), they willingly attach themselves to somebody stating that, they are actually the leader of a group of independents. Using the word group and independent in the same sentence is an oxymoron isn’t it?

Splitting hairs, you could argue that Angela Newton is not leading a recognised political party, but it is very clearly a group involved in politics, making it, at the very least, a political group and therein lies the irony of the claims trotted out be these so called independents.

Just to add insult to injury. This non-group, group of independents, hold group meetings before full council meetings, in exactly the same way as the Conservative group do, but somehow they manage to make them last even longer than ours and there’s only twelve of them compared to 25 of us!

It must be all the effort required to be totally independent of each other, that makes their ‘group’ meetings last so long.

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
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An insider’s view on the decline in local government democracy

Copied from local Government Chronicle online

Inside out: Dull politics repels potential candidates
25 June, 2014

‘Somebody else making the case for party politics being excluded from local government.’

I look round our council meetings and see old white men in eight out of 10 seats. I walk through the town centre and see a refreshing diversity – women, and people of all ages, religions and ethnic groups. The comparison is disturbing.

Our councillors are smashing people. They put in more than 25 hours a week on council business and are deeply committed to our community and council. But the internal monoculture has the same problems as acres of barley across a landscape – it is boring and dominates at the expense of everything else. It is not the barley’s fault; the system and the farmer are responsible.

It’s the same in local government. Councillors are not to blame. It’s the system of local government and the political parties that “farm” councillors. I don’t think changing the times of council meetings will encourage young women or men to become councillors. If enough councillors had jobs and kids, it would be no time before we changed meeting times and provided a crèche. We have to think wider.

How does somebody become a councillor? First, they have to be interested in the role. At the moment we are collapsing into bins, bogs and brushes. Devolve real power back to us, including powers over raising money. Open up debate, eg through open committee decision making. Then we might have more chance of people becoming sufficiently interested to want to become a councillor.

Second, the normal route for someone to become a councillor is through being active in a political party. Community activists who become councillors are the exception rather than the rule.

So parties have to change if we are to move away from the current norm. Parties need to look at how they reach out to different types of people, develop a welcoming and flexible culture and way of operating. They need to develop their members to be equipped to be councillors and review the way they are selected to stand as candidates.

I’ve spoken to young people about getting involved in politics and meeting times have not been mentioned ever. The main turn-offs are ignorance about what we do, formal politics is seen as inaccessible and “not for them”, but mostly because we are dull.

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Scrutiny is no more than whistling in the wind

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Nearly every other day now, councillors are being told that they are, ‘key to driving forward the innovations needed to transform local government, so that it can weather the current financial storm being visited upon it by Westminster’.
Along with this often junior government minister uttered blurb, which is actually code for we’re passing the buck – they wouldn’t describe it as a ‘financial storm’, but rather, local government doing its bit – comes advice that the scrutiny process is an integral element in any transformation strategy.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to identify scrutiny as the way forward, given the abysmal record it has even when richly resourced and supported, as in the case of the Parliamentary scrutiny system.
Almost every other week we hear and read statements from various Parliamentary committees, with Keith Vaz and Margaret Hodge having a seemingly insatiable appetite for appearing on our TV screens, with the opening words, “The government needs to….”, yet what difference does it make to what the government actually does?
Translate this to the amateur, volunteer ‘scout master’ world of the local government councillor, where officer support is always at a premium and constantly under threat from the slash and burn economics of deficit reduction, and scrutiny looks more like whistling in the wind, than an insightful process, that can beat a path to innovative service delivery.

By way of a footnote, I would point to the recent revelations regarding the Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust. Lincolnshire County Council has a health scrutiny committee, with South Holland District Council represented by an independent councillor, who takes every opportunity to tell us what the committee is, or more accurately, isn’t doing. I say isn’t doing, because, in theory, if LCC’s scrutiny of our local hospitals was in any way effective, Lincolnshire hospitals wouldn’t have one of the highest abnormal death rates in England would it? Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten themselves completely hung up on the proposed changes to our local ambulance service instead.

Letter to Local Government First magazine – Localism and planning

Dear sir,
 
I was both interested and concerned to see First, Issue 542, peppered with complaints regarding the relationship between the planning system and Localism, some even calling for the abolition of PINS because, apparently, they don’t get it.
 
The Localism Act has introduced much confusion for the public when it comes to influencing the planning process.  Comments made by members of the public on recent contentious planning applications in my own area, clearly indicate a belief that the Localism Act increases the public’s ability to prevent development from going ahead if enough of them shout loudly enough.
 
This mis-interpretation of the Localism Act’s intentions is, in turn, increasing pressure on councillors to be more outspoken and forceful when speaking at committee.  This pressure is increased further by the Localism Act’s guidance to councillors that advises that they can somehow express an opinion and even campaign on a planning issue, without being accused of pre-determination!  I wonder if any high powered planning barrister would be prepared to defend a decision made by a committee populated by such campaigning members?
 
Whilst I very much sympathise with the councillors who made these comments and understand their wish to represent fully their electorates’ views, I’m afraid it is they, not PINS who don’t get it.  
 
There is a clear need for the government to restate its intentions when it comes to how the Localism Act can be used to influence the planning system – through the process that makes the policy, not the one that determines individual applications. 

 

My best regards, 
 
Councillor Roger Gambba-Jones, 
Planning Committee Chairman, 
South Holland DC, Lincolnshire

Mischievous ramblings, or dangerous mis-information?

It’s always good to see local people getting involved and willing to do their bit to try to make our things better for their community. One of these local people has now decided to stand for the county council, having been a commentator on local issues for sometime now, both via occasional letters to the local press and an active blog site.

I say commentator, because he does not seem to of done anything that could classify him as an activist. My understanding of an activist, is somebody who feels strongly about something and then takes steps to get things changed, generally for the better. Those who do things for the worst, would of course be more akin to extremists, or maybe even terrorists.

To date, this particular individual has made plenty of comments – mostly rambling and almost always negative – but has done little, or rather nothing, to actually improve anything.

The reason that I’m suggesting that his blog site statements might be more akin to dangerous mis-information than simply mischievous ramblings, is because his comments include factual errors that could lead others to draw the wrong conclusions and possibly form completely the wrong opinions about an important issue.

He is not alone in this lazy approach to not getting the facts right before making his thoughts public, as another newly declared county council candidate, standing under a different political banner, is doing exactly the same thing. However, in this case, his comments are directed at me. This is going to be an interesting and I fear, potentially unpleasant election campaign.