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Planned chaos over phone masts in Colchester

Alan 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 Councillors".

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?

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