Thursday 26 July 2012

Lax Attitude to Planning

Serving on the Planning Committee is an onerous task.  Often a resident's only dealings with the local authority is when trying to get planning permission - or objecting to someone else's plans.  

At last night's Committee meeting two residents were fuming.  They'd come for a bungalow application but just 30 minutes before the meeting were told the application was being deferred for a Site Visit.  They were extremely put out - and said so at the beginning of the meeting - because the Committee had visited 30 Cockney Hill at the beginning of the year.  They couldn't fathom the further delay.  The chairman said it was because it was a new committee.  I couldn't contain my indignation as the application was in the chairman's own ward.  I don't think he'd bothered to go and see it - certainly he'd said he hadn't seen it at Monday's Management meeting.  

Another councillor and I were shocked, particularly because not only is the application in the ward the chairman represents (Southcote) and therefore it is his residents who are affected, but also as chairman he gets an extra allowance to fulfil his duties.  We felt it was reprehensible and showed a complete lack of interest.

I've sat on Reading's Planning Committee for over 5 years, 1 of which as chairman.  Before me was Labour's well-loved Jim Hanley who was extremely popular both in this role and as a kind, gentle man.  His sudden death was a huge shock to everybody.

For tricky applications it is usual  practice (across the country) for the Committee to visit the site before it is debated & decided.  Proactive ward councillors visit any contentious applications within their ward to enable them to speak with authority.  The chairman is made aware well in advance of Committee about forthcoming applications.

Last year Labour selected a chairman who wasn't available for Site Visits.  A half-hearted attempt was made to change the well-established timing, but the majority were against the change - so the chairman didn't attend.  He didn't stand down either to make way for a Labour colleague who could make the timing. In fact even when a Labour councillor did bother to come along, often they'd only go to sites south of the river.  Of course for some councillors with full-time jobs in London it can be extremely difficult to get time off work.

In May officers and I were sat on the hired coach waiting on the off-chance one or more of Labour's councillors  might show up for Site Visits.  My Conservative colleagues had told me they weren't able to make it.  In contrast apart from one or perhaps two, the Labour councillors simply hadn't bothered to say one way or the other.  The officers and I gave up waiting after quarter of an hour.  We agreed to cancel one visit (I'd been to Kennet Island a couple of times before so it would have been a waste of everybody's time to go again just for my benefit), but did go ahead with our visit to The Restoration Pub on the Oxford Road.  The developer was there to greet us.  His face fell when officers & I had to admit that I was the only councillor on the visit.  It was extremely embarrassing.

As Labour kept the same chairman after May's elections - who still couldn't manage the timing of Site Visits - I researched what other authorities did, wrote a 2 page report that you can read here and then tabled it at a Planning Management meeting. I am glad to say my words were heeded, the timing was changed and so far the attendance has improved.  

Returning to last night's meeting, it does the chairman no favours if he fails to familiarise himself even with applications in his own ward. It sets a poor example to other councillors and does a disservice to the residents we as elected members are here to serve.