Alan Drew says the Planning Department of his local council is out of control and suspects this reflects a wider problem.

A couple of months ago, a planning application was submitted by O2 to build a new phone mast in Colchester. As a customer of O2, living in an area with terrible reception, I am a supporter of this mast (partly because it isn’t in my back yard, and partly because as a scientist I am deeply sceptical of any "health" issues emanating from the masts).

However, at the Planning Committee meeting in January this application was refused, as it is their right to. The grounds for refusal, agreed by the committee, were “Public perception of health reasons” with a supplementary reason on street clutter. The decision overturned the original opinion of the council officers, who were supportive of the development.

Despite this ruling by our democratically elected councillors well in advance of the deadline, it appears that the council officers did not act on this decision within the given time and the mast was given planning permission by default. In fact, the officers made the decision just 2 days after the 56 day deadline. And what is absolutely unforgivable is that the Conservative councillors for the ward thought the application was rejected, but found out that it was granted because they received a copy of a letter sent out to residents, explaining that the consultation date had expired and that the company had gained planning consent by default. 

Furthermore, despite one of the councillors asking the planning
officers to be informed when the original application was submitted,
the first that was heard about it was when the local press telephoned
for a comment. When added to the fact that the officer’s original and
supportive report did not take into account a number of critical
issues, such as the location being adjacent to two conservation areas,
one wonders who really is in charge! There are even complaints from the
ward councillors that they have not been informed of the results of the
internal investigation (let alone actually being involved in it) – but
it’s all OK, the
officers will make it public in due course (once it is finalised, of course).

As one local resident put it, "Have the department never heard of
diaries or calendars?". It seems clear that the Lib Dem Planning
Portfolio Holder needs to get a grip on this department where she is
supposedly representing the taxpayers’ interests. Something as simple
as a wall-planner (and I am happy to give her one if she doesn’t know
what one looks like) stuck to the walls of the planning office, with a
little "training" on how to mark up those little square boxes with
numbers beside them would help. But of course, the officers are already
aware of what should be done to improve the situation, as it is the
third(!) time in recent years a phone mast has been given planning
permission by default, due to missed deadlines.

Interestingly, similar issues are apparent in other departments. Last
Autumn the Lib Dem portfolio holder for finance, Cllr Paul Smith, was
completely unaware (until after it was too late) that £4m of the
Council’s money had disappeared into a black-hole known as Landisbanki.
Disappointingly, the previous Conservative administration removed the
money from Landisbanki in April 2008, only for the new Lib Dem/Labour
controlled council to put it back in again not 4 months later. Cllr
Paul Smith even had the cheek to respond with "Somewhere in Reykjavik,
I suppose?" to questions from Conservative councillors about where the
money had gone. Of course, at the time he was using the "I didn’t know"
argument; now I am getting propaganda through the door claiming that
the budget was "signed off by the full council, including ALL Tory

All of this brings us into the broader question of who is in charge of
Borough (and possibly even County) Councils, whether Conservative, Lib
Dem or, heaven forbid, Labour controlled? How difficult is it for
democratically elected councillors to take control of their officers?
It seems that in Colchester this task is rather difficult and I can
understand why. Even after assuming the councillors stay elected and
their party is in majority, they would still normally change portfolio
every few years. When faced with the arguments put forward by a
professionally trained, full-time permanent staff, councillors have to
be really on the ball. Not only that, but councillors tend to be most
active in the evening, without too much opportunity to observe the
day-to-day running of the council departments. Clearly the council
staff are the experts and they should only be there to advise and carry
out the wishes of those democratically elected.

At least in Colchester, with the current Lib/Lab administration, this
is clearly not the way things are and I suspect that this is the case
in many other councils. It seems to me that one of the most effective
ways of
having true political control over councils is to have councillors that
work alongside their officers, in a full-time capacity. The most
obvious way of doing this would be to make it a properly paid
profession, paying a decent salary for a decent days work, but is it
really an option to create yet another class of professional
politicians? On the other hand, not paying a decent salary whilst
expecting full-time councillors limits us to only those who are
retired, those with a spouse able to bring in a primary income and
those of independent means. But the main problem with full-time
councillors is that it would exclude the huge amount that certain
members of society can offer, such as those with alternative careers.

Of course, not all councils have the problems described above, but
there must be a significant minority. Given the current state of
affairs, coupled with the lack of will to make yet another class of
professional politician, what is the solution to the problems within
local government?