An external report has criticised Fenland Council for allowing a “perception” to exist that some councillors exert undue influence on planning applications.

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The report, by a team from the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) and Local Government Association (LGA), said many they spoke to felt that on “some occasions some councillors acted as the planning agent’s spokesman”.

They also criticised the council for time lags in deciding many applications: they were told of a backlog of 236 planning applications of which 22 were major decisions.

Backlogs also exist in answering pre application discussions and dealing with compliance issues.

“These backlogs effectively clog up the system and lead to inefficiencies and frustrating in tackling public concerns.”

The panel concluded: “Action is required and especially so in the light of government consultations in relation to underperforming planning services.”

Fenland’s performance on deciding major applications within 13 weeks has dropped from from79 per cent in 2011/12 to 40 per cent in 2012/13 and stood at 44 per cent during the inspection.

Speed of decision making on minor applications and others had also declined between 2011/12 and 2013/14

The report’s focus on officer/councillor relationships is one of the challenges facing new council leader John Clark.

He was given an advance copy of the report and spent two days reading it before allowing other councillors to see it.

The report says the “separation of political versus operational is important to councillors, managers, staff and users and stakeholders of the planning service.

“We were told by a number of district councillors, parish councillors, some managers, developers and users of the planning system that there existed a perception of undue influence over application decision making.

“A phrase that captures the concerns of some is that on at least some occasions some councillors acted as the planning agent’s spokesman.

“No evidence was brought to our attention to corroborate any concerns and we directed those with any concerns to air them through the appropriate internal governance procedures.

“However even the perception of inappropriate influence undermines the objectivity and integrity of the planning decision making process.”

Cllr Clark described it as a “disappointing report: I think Fenland has to accept quite a high level of criticism on both sides, members and the council”.

He said his new portfolio for planning, Councillor Will Sutton, will be taking urgent action on the report’s recommendations.

“Will has an early appointment with corporate director Alan Pain to get an action plan with dates and times when we can implement the changes which are necessary,” he said.

“This report is not something to be kicked into the long grass- it has to be seized and something done. We have to accept it is fair criticism; some things which could have been put right, like the backlog, should have been dealt with and help sought.”

He said: “It is not a good report and I recognise there are problems and we have to address the easier ones as quickly as we can. We have to give ourselves a timetable to implement the changes.”

With the Government threshold for intervention likely to be raised from 30 per cent to 40 per cent in relation to speed of decision making within 13 weeks, the report warns Fenland Council of the dangers.

“We found some procedures for dealing with applications distinctly cumbersome,” they concluded. Fenland needs intervention to “cut through ingrained practices and cultures”.

And the team of experts also noted that the number of times councillors over turn officers recommendations is rising and that nearly one in two appeals against the council’s decisions are lost.

The report says major planning applications have the most potential to support the council’s need for additional houses, jobs, regeneration and supporting infrastructure

“The council should focus its improvement efforts working with the development sector to set out clear protocols and standards to improve delivery timetables,” it says.

Contact between officers and councillors are also examined with the report noting the “clarity of roles” has become “blurred”.

Examples include “overly open access to officers, influence over prioritisation of workloads and accountability in relation to procedures such as agreeing section 106 wording and contributions”.

The report also says that “given the vital importance of taking sound decisions based on defensible planning grounds we consider that the high number of allowed appeals is a concern and along with some awards of costs in an indicator of some weak decision making at planning committee.

“Whilst we consider that our recommendations on role clarity, the planning committee and training will help, it is ultimately a matter of integrity, trust and confidence.”

The review team’s 16-page report recognises that “there exists much good work to build on” and praises the enthusiasm and commitment of councillors and staff.

It suggests that the planning committee “should do less but be more effective and efficient in handling those major applications that are the lifeblood for providing the 11,000 homes and 7,000 jobs and the necessary supporting roads, schools and infrastructure in the district in the next 20 years”.

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