Rother Distict Council (RDC) have announced that, in the interests of transparency, one assumes, they are in future to allow members of the public to speak at Planning Committee meetings if they wish either to object to, or support specific schemes under discussion. They must first, though submit a petition of support or objection and this petition must be signed by at least 10 people. Fair enough, one might think, as this will stop anyone with a personal axe to grind wasting committee time, whilst at the same time allowing genuine public concern or approval to be voiced.
It is, I would hope, not being over-cynical to suggest that civil servants, whether national or local, are not over keen on the idea of ‘the public’ being allowed to influence decisions of government. Indeed, there are doubtless a number who are not too keen on the elected politicians influencing or even making decisions, either.
So is there a catch to this piece of ‘open government’? The short answer, of course, is yes. In a document detailing the change and posted on the RDC website there are several caveats mentioned, but the most glaring is that this will only apply to planning applications that are discussed at Committee. And herein lies the problem, for most applications do not go before the Committee.
In our interview, some weeks ago, with Paul Osborne, chairman of RDC, he admitted that providing an application ‘ticked all the boxes’ and complied with all the statutory rules laid down, then it would be automatically passed by the planning officer (who is a paid council official and not an elected councillor) without necessarily referring it to the planning committee. The reason given for this was that if an application that fulfilled all the necessary bureaucratic criteria was rejected, the applicants would immediately go to appeal which would then cost the Council both time and money to defend their decision.
The vast majority of applications are dealt with in this way and therefore, despite the new measure, there is, in reality, no change to the existing situation. The planning officer is obliged to take note of any petitions but is not obliged to act on them.
Which brings us to the real question: who really runs our local councils? is it the councillors who have been elected on a specific platform or is it in reality the council officers who are answerable only to themselves? The answer would seem to be the latter.
Another example of this also came out of the discussion with Mr Osborn. We had been talking about the Landgate and the flood lights set in to the pavement that have not worked for many years. He agreed that they should be working, would make a great difference to the entrance to the High Street at night, and undertook to get a date for when this would happen. As good as his word, he sent an enquiry the following day to the relevant official and received the rather stuffy reply that the officer was aware that the lights were not working “at the moment” but that they would be dealt with in the course of the normal maintenance schedule for the Landgate. As there has been no ‘maintenance schedule’ for the structure for many years (and hence the current estimate of in excess of £300,000 required just to stabilise it) there is clearly no intention of doing anything about them (and never was) and thus clearly flouting a senior councillor’s wishes and leaving the elected councillor unable to do anything about it.
This is surely an appalling abuse of our democracy. Here in Rye there have often been complaints that RDC in Bexhill is happy to take our money but always reluctant to return any of it in kind. And why is this? The answer is now evident: detailed expenditure and policy would appear to be controlled, not by elected members, but by faceless officials, many of whom may never even have been to Rye and some of whom may not even be able to pin point it on a map. They live, probably, in and around Bexhill so why should they have any interest in allocating any funds for the upkeep of Rye “this far away country……..of which we know nothing.” (Words actually spoken by Neville Chamberlain during the Czechoslovakia crisis, but probably every bit as applicable to Bexhill’s view of Rye).
Of course I could be totally wrong and if so I shall immediately issue a grovelling apology – but, sadly, on current evidence I doubt if I’ll have to.