South Cambridgeshire District Council has a few dozen councillors and a few dozen planning officers. In the former category there is only one Labour supporter – the Party has one out of 57 councillors. Naturally we don't know how the planning officers vote although it is likely that Socialism is the prevailing orthodoxy – just as it would be, for instance, among the social workers of Cambridgeshire County Council where Labour have three of the 69 councillors.
Provided that policy and decisions are made by the councillors, with the planning officers providing technical support and advice in a professional manner, then all would be fine. The difficulty is when the planning officers are calling the shots and allowed to promote their own interests and ideology.
Perhaps from a planning officers' point of view, there might be willingness to allow councillors to set direction, but they may find councillors so lazy or feeble that they merely serve as a rubber stamp. Other planning officers might not have grasped the local democracy lark, and grumble about councillors "interfering" in the decision making process.
Anyway there will often be friction between the two tribes, and I dare say that in the pubs of Cambourne, clusters of one tribe can sometimes be found reflecting in a disobliging manner on the motivations and abilities of the other.
Cllr Tom Bygott, the Conservative councillor for Girton, put his concerns in a private email to colleagues.
“I don’t buy the notion that all council services are beneficial to the residents we represent. The planning department, which exists mainly to provide work for unemployed architects, is actively hostile to the interests of our residents.
“They busy themselves by getting involved in lots of unnecessary details. And, they wouldn’t have to deal with so much correspondence if they weren’t irritating so many applicants and neighbours.”
Given that was his view he had not just a duty but a right to raise it. For him to do so internally, rather than attack his own council publicly, was entirely proper. After all, at the time he had a remit for "policy and performance." Was that role supposed to be merely to pretend that everything was fine?
Anyway one of his sneaky colleagues leaked the email to the Cambridge News. Cllr Bygott then explained his comment by adding:
“Our planning officers, as a group, are very hardworking and have a difficult job to do, however, it is the bureaucratic nature of the planning system as a whole that creates unproductive work.
“The costs and effort required to submit an application often deter householders and favour developers with more resources.
“I have long advocated a streamlined national planning system that would be more efficient and better represent the interests of our residents.
“I don’t want to criticise our officers any more than town planners in any other part of the country.”
Astonishingly, there was then an official complaint against Cllr Bygott. After months of deliberation the Civic Affairs Committee concluded that taking action against Cllr Bygott would not be possible as it would put the council in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
So the message goes out that any councillor on South Cambridgeshire who robustly fights bureaucracy and champions local residents, value for money, and common sense will only escape censure due to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Instead the best thing is not to rock the boat – just collect your allowances, turn up to meetings, smile nicley and let the bureaucrats run things.
Members of the South Cambridgeshire Conservative Associaton and the South East Cambridgeshire Conservative Association may find this unsatisfactory. If they think they can do a better job it is for them to put themselves forward for selection as candidates.