Planning Committee: Council’s Albatross?

Editor’s Comment

IN March 2009, the Audit Commission’s “Direction of Travel” report on Thurrock Council placed the borough in the bottom five in the country. Down there with Haringey and Doncaster, which isn’t great company.

One of the key criticisms was relating to the “fundamental breakdown in the relationships between officers and members”

In the last year, the council has made great strides forward to improve but there seems to be a stumbling block: The Planning Committee.

Like some maverick North Korean outpost, they seemed oblivious to appeals to build bridges.

In 2009, we have seen the chairman lambast the officers for lack of vision. We have seen officers talked over by councillors or have we seen officers “chipping in” in a way that is unseen in any other committee?

There are some who see the creeping interruption by the officers as a symbol of state interference and the erosion of the fundaments of democracy.

Others see it as people who just don’t get on.

Certainly, yourthurrock attends full council, cabinet, health committees, children services committees, education committees and overview and scutiny committees and the rancour and tension in the planning committee is unrivalled.

The bottom line is that there is a real risk that all the good work that Garry Hague’s team has done in the last year could be undone by this committee.

The Chair, Cllr Stuart St Clair Haslam (a lawyer) is clearly a man of principles. His statement at full council regarding the Tory HQ in the Titan Industrial Works was a case in point (see article “A Saint Amongst Titans”). We are just not entirely sure what those principles are.

They have clearly been spoke to by the Interim Chief Executive, the Leader and many others and although they relented last night, although the rest of the meeting was muted, one still wonders if they really get it or are they suffering from some form of political asbergers?

It beggars belief that, last night, two of the councillors, stayed for the Green Belt decision and then skipped the rest of the meeting (we understand) to go off to the Darts at Circus Tavern. As Cllr Haslam said: “It is all about public perception.”

Some may say that principles are fine as long as you personally pick up the tab for the costs involved in this debacle.

1. The costs of the QC John Hobson
2. The costs of possible legal action that the two applicants may take.

but also the reputation to the council. Those who work closely have seen all the hard work that has gone into improving the borough from Collins House to Chafford Hundred Campus but this one “dysfunctional” committee could ruin all that hard work.

What does one of the applicants think now? We understand that Ian Agates (Mardyke Farm) brought a planning consultant down from Manchester. They sat there helpless as Mr Hobson made his recommendations and then briskly walked out the door.

Mr Agates’ consultant chased after him but was brusquely told that he should write a letter. There was no opportunity to appeal at that time however they will have an opportunity to re-present however it has clearly left a nasty taste in many people’s mouths.

Before and after the re-organisation of the Development Corporation, the council have asked that all planning permissions be given back to the council.

The fundamental problem is the great deal of confusion about green belt land. Some say, there isn’t any confusion: the law says you can only build in special circumstances but that still sounds highly highly subjective.

As the Agates party said last night: “We believe that the opportunity to provide upwards of a hundred jobs in the middle of a recession is a pretty special circumstance.”

But there are so many cases where the goalposts move. Late last year, the planning committee voted not to enforce an enforcement notice on a property occupied by travellers even though the “Planning Inspectorate noted that the development represented substantial harm to the Green Belt”.

They were warned then that there may be legal implications. If you dig about, you may well find many many examples such as this.

We have made several attempt and invitations to members of the planning committee to discuss matters. They have all been refused. as we say, youtube…good enough for Barack Obama’s election campaign but not good enough for Thurrock Council’s Planning Committee?

Making it up as you go along, taking it on a case by case basis. You decide. Either way, something has to be done. Like it or not, in Ofsted speak: the committee could be a case for special measures…..

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