Transparent planning decisions?

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23370
Rother District Council headquarters,

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.

5 COMMENTS

  1. As was is & will always be RDC are not interested in anything to do with Rye & our elected RDC councilors seem not to back the electorate on anything.

  2. 2 comments – To suggest that Council Officers are not accountable is plain wrong. They are required to act in line with the Council’s policies and the authority delegated to them. To do otherwise would be unlawful.

    Secondly, if there is sufficient concern about a planning application locally a request can be made to local Councillors to “call it in” so that it goes to the Planning Committee for decision if officers are inclined to approve it. In Fairlight we have done this successfully on a few occasions. Sometimes we have persuaded the committee to take a different view from their officers and sometimes not.

  3. This article is so poorly researched it is difficult to know where to begin. With an analogy, perhaps.
    Imagine you’re suddenly feeling unwell, bad enough to go to A&E. Who would you want to be seen by? Would you prefer an elected but unqualified and probably inexperienced layperson or an unelected but qualified and experienced medical professional? The NHS is publicly funded, so accountability is important to you. Furthermore, you are familiar with the human body – you have one yourself as does everybody else, therefore it follows that it is a simple thing to know. So logically, you choose the layperson every time. Right?
    I would suggest that anybody interested in the detail of planning matters reads ‘Probity in Planning’ http://www.pas.gov.uk/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=e0cde66c-8cda-4f56-b784-a45cdd41f089&groupId=10180 .
    It is true that about 85% of planning applications are determined under delegated powers, however ALL applications are subject to public consultation. Planning officers can and do refuse planning applications under delegated powers if they consider the application does not comply with planning policy, they will of course take due notice of comments from the public in reaching their decision providing the reasons are material planning considerations. About 15% of planning applications go to planning committee. There is a set procedure for this. Usually these are applications of a major, controversial or sensitive nature or have aroused significant public interest on valid planning grounds. It would also include applications requested to go to committee by a district councillor, so members of the public can lobby their councillor to do this on their behalf, again providing there are valid planning grounds.
    Many people do not appreciate just how complex the planning system is. Planning officers need to know not just about design and ever changing national and local planning policy, but also have to deal with archaeology, conservation, biodiversity, contamination, traffic, flood risk, arboriculture, drainage, building regulations, environment, etc, etc. As an architect myself, I would always rather deal with a planning professional rather than see an application go to committee, where decisions can be erratic, to say the least. I disagree with Michael Gove when he says that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
    This said, I’m pleased that Rother DC have finally introduced public speaking, albeit in a quite limited form. They are one of the last councils in the country to do so. More should be done: I would also like to see all applications where the parish or town council have made a different recommendation from the case officer automatically go to committee, as is the case in Shepway, Maidstone and elsewhere. Currently Rother DC can ignore the opinion of the town or parish council, this is not good for democracy.

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