Well they would wouldn’t they – quality is already a distant memory

Reforms outlined by housing secretary Robert Jenrick have been broadly welcomed by the built environment industry, but they warn that quality must not be compromised.

Writing in the The Telegraph, Jenrick says England’s “outdated and cumbersome” planning system has contributed to a “generational divide” between those who own property and those who don’t.

Later this week, a policy paper will be published comprising “radical and necessary reforms” to the planning system. 

“Our reforms seek a more diverse and competitive housing industry, in which smaller builders can thrive alongside the big players and where planning permissions are turned into homes faster than they are today,” he explains. “Creating a new planning system isn’t a task we undertake lightly, but it is both an overdue and a timely reform.” 

Responding on Twitter, the RTPI said the government appears to have recognised its “tests” and in particular its four tests for zoning.

“As part of these reforms, we’re pleased that government seems to be making a commitment to maintaining local democracy, use of locally agreed design codes, increased focus on strategic planning and clear direction on meeting net-zero carbon targets.

“We are also interested to see an intention to move away from ‘notices on lamp posts’ to a more interactive, accessible online system – by focusing more on digital, planners will be freed up to do more proactive, strategic work, focused on delivery.

“We await the full policy paper due later this week. The RTPI looks forward to leading the discussion on any reform to the planning system in England by convening a series of round tables across its nine English regions to discuss the reforms in detail.”

‘Gross oversimplification’

Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at countryside charity CPRE said: “The government’s intended reforms sound like a gross oversimplification of the planning system. First and foremost, our planning process must respond to the needs of communities, both in terms of providing much-needed affordable homes and other vital infrastructure, and green spaces for our health and wellbeing. 

“The planning process as it stands may not be perfect, but instead of deregulating planning, the government must invest in planning. Quality development needs a quality planning system with community participation at its heart.

“The secretary of state has claimed that these planning reforms will still be very much ‘people-focused’ but that flies in the face of what has been outlined today by the government. We eagerly await more details and will be joining forces with a range of other housing, planning and environmental campaigning bodies to push back hard on the deregulation agenda, which has never been the answer to the question of how best to boost economic growth.”

‘So far so good’

Jenrick’s plans to “strip bureaucracy and delay” from the planning system are a case of “so far so good” for Peter Hogg, UK cities director at Arcadis.

“The new approach may make it easier to get a consent, but how will it make the all-important financial viability – without proof of which housebuilders won’t build – more certain? Unless the policy addresses this we will have more planning consents but not more homes.

“Perhaps most of all though, where is the voice of the community in this new approach? Vibrant, sustainable liveable places take root and succeed where interests are balanced and the community is at the heart of shaping and defining a place. It will be important to make sure that ‘permission in principle’ doesn’t equate to ‘ignoring communities’ in fact.”

Acknowledgement of social infrastructure encouraging

Ken Dytor, founder and executive chairman of Urban Catalyst, said: “It’s encouraging that the government has put social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals alongside housing in its plans to speed up development.

“While the housing secretary is right that the uninspiring design of some developments fuels Nimbyism, concerns over additional pressure on existing public services are typically another major driver behind local opposition to new development.

“Similarly encouraging is the drive to harness greater community participation in the planning process by embracing a more 21st century tech-savvy approach. This should hopefully lead to a wider range of voices being heard, resulting in more inclusive, balanced developments.

“However, if the government’s ‘build, build, build’ agenda is to align with its ‘levelling up’ promise, we need to see regionally driven infrastructure linked to housing delivery to kick-start both national and local growth.”

Many measures already possible

Bernadette Hillman, partner in the planning team at London-based law firm, Sharpe Pritchard, commented: “Much of what the government proposes is possible under the current system and we should be building on the existing regime. Permission in principle already exists and there really is no need for major reform: just some technical adjustments and properly resourced local planning departments.

“We’ve seen permissions for millions of homes in the last 10 years not being implemented: we need delivery.

“There’s so much we don’t know yet – the devil will be in the detail, of course, and it will be an interesting few days ahead.”

Can’t be limited to housing

Mike Derbyshire, head of planning at property consultancy Bidwells, one of the key protagonists in the property industry’s Radical Regeneration Manifesto campaign, is on board with reforms.

“Our regeneration think tank has been calling for exactly this to happen – a radical overhaul of an antiquated system that has not evolved alongside modern real estate, communities and social systems; a fairer planning system that is inclusive and that prioritises environmentally friendly practices, and designated areas where planning can be fast-tracked.

“We are pleased to see the government taking action to ensure that, on paper, the right sort of regeneration and development happens. We now need to see how this works in practice; for example, it cannot be limited to housing as mixed-use development is just as important to the success of modern communities and well-designed cultural neighbourhoods are crucial to a more positive and united society. But it is a step in the right direction and one which we will watch unfold with great interest and will to succeed.”

Cannot compromise on quality

Mark Crane, the District Councils Network’s lead member for stronger economies, said:

“Getting the country building desperately needed homes again will be a vital part of the national recovery from coronavirus, and district councils stand shovel-ready to deliver.

“But we cannot compromise on the quality of new homes and places and sideline public consultation, which we fear will be the consequence of the government’s planning reforms.

“District councils and their local communities continue to grant nine in 10 planning permissions, while tens of thousands of homes with planning permission remain unbuilt – the housing delivery system is broken, not the planning system.

“To tackle the housing crisis, councils need to be given the funding to invest in infrastructure and the powers to build homes that are green, high quality, and affordable.”

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), said: “The prime minister has said we need to ‘build, build, build’ our way to recovery and a flexible and responsive planning system is essential to deliver this aim. Local small builders have an important role to play in delivering the high-quality homes the country needs but 42 per cent of small builders have difficulty engaging with the planning system. New measures that make the planning system quicker and more affordable are welcome but it is vital that high standards in design and build are not compromised as a result, and that any overhaul doesn’t in fact add further delays.”

3 August 2020
Laura Edgar, The Planner

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
Follow us: @westbriton on Twitter | westbriton on Facebook

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.

Leaders hit back in pensions row

This debate gets more and more surreal at each turn. Eric Pickles kicks things off by claiming that chief executives are surplus to requirements and that elected members should be able to fill the gap. One of his lackeys then goes on record suggesting that elected members are only volunteers and amateurs in the game of politics – ‘professional’ only applies to members of Parliament it seems.
So which is it DCLG? If it is cull the officers and plug the gap with councillors, are we to assume that this is to be done on a completely voluntary basis and for the love of it only?

I particularly like the use of the term ‘prat’ in this case and the pointed remark made to somebody I know well, ‘He’s one of your prats’.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
11 January, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Council leaders from across the political spectrum have criticised ministerial attacks on councillors remuneration and may launch a legal challenge against plans to restrict access to the local government pension scheme.

The judicial review is being considered by Labour leaders while their Conservative counterparts said had they met ministers no fewer than four times in the past 48 hours to discuss proposed pension changes.

Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democratic and Independent leaders at yesterday’s meeting of the LGA executive were particularly critical of ministers’ language. Local government minister Brandon Lewis, who has proposed closing the Local Government Pension Scheme to councillors, said elected members should see themselves as volunteers rather than professional politicians.

Mr Lewis’ comments, made before Christmas, has already led one leader to accuse ministers of treating councillors with “contempt”. The issue was also raised by Conservative leaders when they met with Mr Lewis on Thursday morning.

On that same day, during an appearance on the BBC’s Today programme, Conservative Party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps added fuel to the fire and widened the row by questioning allowances for “volunteer” councillors and likened them to “scout leaders”.

At a meeting of the LGA’s executive on Thursday, LGA Labour group leader David Sparks said it was “extremely important that we do not just roll over on this [pension] issue” and suggested a legal challenge could be made against the proposal.

He called for LGA officials to compile a report on councillor pensions as well as those of other elected members such as MPs and Greater London Assembly members. “I am expecting that the report we get in February will look seriously at the whole issue of judicial review,” Mr Sparks added.

‘Prat’

Leaders from all parties expressed frustration and some anger at ministers’ comments, although there was widespread laughter when Cllr Sparks described listening to Mr Shapps on the radio that morning as “like driving up the motorway and seeing one of those kids in a car who continually sticks his tongue out…[and] you think one of these days you’re going to grow up and be an even bigger prat”.

Turning to LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) and LGA Conservative group leader Gary Porter, he added: “He’s one of your prats and you really have to do something about him.”

Cllr Porter declined to comment on Cllr Sparks’ analogy but he criticised the “language around the debate” and called for ministers to take a more mature approach. “If there is a genuine need to revisit [the pension arrangement] on financial grounds they could do that in a mature, adult way,” he said.

Describing the proposal as “a stupid idea being carried out in a stupid way”, he said he and other Conservative leaders had already seen Mr Lewis and discussed the pension proposal twice on Wednesday and would raise it again in a further two meetings with the minister on Thursday.

Making the argument for councillor pensions and allowances, Sir Merrick said reducing remuneration would adversely affect councillor diversity. “The idea that only certain people of a certain background with a certain financial security can stand to be a councillor is highly objectionable.” He added: “I hope that our representations, particular those made in private earlier today [to Brandon Lewis], will be heard.”

Leaders and elected mayors at the meeting also questioned the distinction made by Mr Lewis between elected mayors, who are judged to work full time and therefore should be eligible for a pension, and leaders, who are not.

‘Hypocrites’

Peter Box (Lab), leader of Wakefield MBC, added: “As an executive leader I am responsible for a multi-million pound business and to say you can do that on some part-time basis is detached from reality.” The truth was councillors passed up career opportunities to be elected members, he said, unlike “many MPs who seem to have two jobs, and Grant Shapps is one, they have got that much time on their hands”.

Accusing ministers of “hypocrisy”, Cllr Box was one of many to make a comparison with MPs pensions and salaries just hours before publication of a survey of MPs showed they felt their salaries should increase by 33%.

Mr Lewis’ criticism of councillor pensions combined with Mr Shapps’ comments on allowances led Hackney LBC elected mayor Jules Pipes (Lab) to question their wider attitude to local government. Shapps’ and Lewis’ comments indicated the government thought councils “with £1bn-plus turnover can be run by an occasional few evening meetings”, he said. This image was “a world away” from the present day when there were “issues of performance that we are held directly accountable for in a way we weren’t 10 or 20 years ago”.

LGA Independent leader Marianne Overton described the government’s attitude as “an attack on the value of democratic representation” while Chris White (Lib Dem), leader of Hertfordshire CC, warned the pension proposal was “the beginning of an attack and the attack will be on allowances in general”.

He also warned that councillors arguing for pensions would be “a tabloid story. Grant Shapps and others will be absolutely delighted if we make a fuss because that is just writing copy for the Daily Mail”. However, he added, “that does not mean we shouldn’t [make a fuss].”

Extend councillor recruitment drive, MPs urge

Here’s an article that should get some of my regular readers talking, groaning or seething, depending on their view of elected members.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
10 January, 2013 | By Kaye Wiggins

MPs have called for the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign to be extended, warning that too many elected representatives did not reflect their local communities.

The cross-party Communities and Local Government select committee praised the LGA’s campaign in a report about the role of councillors, published on Thursday. The campaign aims to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to stand as councillors, in time for the May 2013 local elections.

‘Political row over allowances claim’, see bottom of page

“The Local Government Association deserves credit for its work on the Be a Councillor programme, which is playing an important role in encouraging a wider group of people to stand at local elections”, the report said.

“We would encourage the LGA to expand the programme, under its established branding, to enable it to play a wider role in the promotion of local democracy.”

MPs said it was a “matter of concern” that “the composition of many councils does not reflect that of the communities they serve.”

“It is important to increase the proportion of women, younger people and black and minority ethnic people serving on local authorities”, they said in the report.

The MPs also criticised communities secretary Eric Pickles for his use of terms such as “guided localism” and “muscular localism”, accusing the Department for Communities & Local Government of “an inability to let go of the reins” that was “frustrating and confusing” for councillors.

“We once again urge the government to rein in its interventionist instincts”, it said.

The report also said:

The levels of councillors’ allowances “can be a deterrent to people standing for election”. Councils should be allowed to hand decisions about councillors’ allowances to independent local bodies
Councils should consider providing councillors with officer support to help them to manage their casework
The government should incentivise employers to support employees who were councillors
Councillors should not be blocked from influencing local services that were delivered by external providers
Councils should be allowed to compensate councillors for loss of earnings as part of their allowance
Most councillors were hard-working and committed – but some “do little work and, because theyrepresent safe seats, have little incentive to do more.” Councils should set up measures to deal with councilor under-performance
To read the report, click here

Political row over allowances claim
The committee’s report sparked a political row, after Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps and local government minister Brandon Lewis branded its warning that low allowances could deter would-be councillors and call for councillors to be allowed to be compensated for any loss of earnings that they suffer as a “cynical and sleazy move”. Claiming the cross-party committee’s report had come from “Labour politicians” and pointing to Labour Party rules under which a share of its councillors’ allowances are transferred to the party’s own funds, Mr Shapps said Labour was trying to increase the party’s budget. “Local taxpayers will be shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids in from Labour demands for more taxpayers’ money on councillor allowances”, he said.

Mr Lewis added: “Labour are completely out of touch with local taxpayers by calling for higher councillor allowances and defending pensions for councillors.”

However, a spokeswoman for the committee pointed out that the report’s findings and recommendations had been approved by politicians of all parties. Labour MP Clive Betts, chair of the committee, said he was “saddened by the reaction of Brandon Lewis and Grant Shapps who have stoked this negativity and undermined a serious concern of councillors from their own party”.

“Allowances remain low and act as a deterrent for many considering whether to stand for election,” he added. “This is particularly an issue for employed people and those with young families, who lose income when taking time out from work for their councillor duties. The committee therefore called for councils to have the option to have decisions about allowances to be taken out of councillors’ hands and transferred to independent local bodies.

“We also found that people are put off by shallow political point scoring, which makes the response of Mr Lewis and Mr Shapps all the more disappointing.”

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