Additional training for councillors after critical report into Wrexham’s planning process
Although the public may see councillors and officers clash at Planning Committee meetings, it is not an ‘endemic’ problem, and the issue is “not much different to any other authority” a lead councillor has said.
Yesterday we reported on the review into Planning at Wrexham Council, that details a range of suggestions with an aim to improving the overall process, following disquiet from some councillors over over the system that verged on a vote of no confidence.
The conduct of the Planning Committee itself has also raised eyebrows. In February last year we documented the alleged ‘aggressive’ nature of one contribution, with another stating officers were effectively accused of misleading councillors.
The committee chairman also called a retired army major ‘bloody old fool’, prompting complaints, with eyebrows often raised at how business is conducted and how officers are treated.
Part of the Local Development Plan was hammered by Inspectors in one of the most awkward meetings we have observed, with a motion wanting to in effect call a vote of confidence was not included in a debate – a move branded a ‘gag’ on democracy.
Earlier this week, prior to the reports being made available, we attended a media brief and asked questions on the topic around councillor and officer relations.
Commenting on the review Cllr David Kelly, Lead Member for Planning, said: “From the point of view that in the body of the report, it’s been noted that members should receive more training in regards to the code of conduct, and the issue over member / officer relationships.
“Although it was felt that some of these things sort of spiked during some of the meetings that were broadcast, it’s very much a perceived issue, and the Planning Advisory Service did find that in the main relationships were quite good with officers and members.
“There is always the exception to the rule, but it’s basically going to be covered through training and code of conduct issues that the manifested themselves”
Chief Executive Ian Bancroft added: “I think planning is a sensitive issue. I think nationally it’s becoming more sensitive as time goes on, which is why other councils are considering reviews in a similar fashion.
“It is always going to be sensitive, because on one hand, you have a planning committee that needs to consider the borough wide perspective when it takes decisions, and clearly there are planning applications in people’s individuals areas, that is a really important tension to manage.
“I think that’s the importance of training, acting as a team around planning, whether it’s wider officers or members, that actually it’s a team approach to planning committee in terms of the advice that officers give, and the way that work then happens between officers and Planning Committee, and recognising that it’s up to planning committee to make those decisions.”
The answers given were quite positive and forward looking presenting a utopia that verged on unrecognisable after watching the output of some planning meetings and what related stakeholders have said.
We noted that they could be ‘perceived issues’ as per the the forthcoming report, and documented problems around apologies for aggressive behaviour and accusations against officers. The briefing note we had mentioned ‘training’ so we enquired if that would be mandatory, and should current and future members of the council be offered – or required – to have training on their conduct.
Cllr Mark Pritchard said: “I think it should be mandatory. I think any elected member who sits on the planning committee should have training before they start and I think that’s important.
“I sat on the planning committee for a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had the appropriate training, and I just feel it should be mandatory.”
Cllr Kelly added: “There has always been an element of what’s considered to be mandatory training for planning committee members. Any quasi judicial committee, such planning or licensing members are required to undergo some training.
“The thing is, perhaps some members have indirectly forgotten the training that they’ve had – when it suits them if you like.
“The perception is from a public point of view, if they see it going on on a broadcast meeting, they think it’s endemic, but it is not. That is what the Planning Advisory Service found, that the issues in Wrexham are not much different to any other authority, really.”
Mr Bancroft ‘reflected’ on the word perception, stating: “I think is in relation to performance. So there have been comments around planning performance that have been perceptions that the service was performing badly.
“So that was some of the logic around getting an independent assessment around planning performance.
“I think the statements that have been made are actually planning is doing okay, it’s satisfactory, it’s creditable – but it could improve. That’s why there’s a series of improvement recommendations.
“Around training, we have mandatory training, there’s training required, that means until you’ve done that training, you can’t do certain things. I think what the report saying is, we need to increase training in this area, and also increase the work that members and officers do together.
“There’s a collective understanding in terms of that work, and why I am talking around working as a team, while recognising the different roles people play. In training and development, collectively, officers and members can work really clearly together.
“Its then the respect that’s given around expressing differences of view between both officer and member that’s really, really critical. That balance between local and borough wide in terms of decision making as well. That is a complex set of equations, and it’s made even harder, by not being able to be together face to face. ”
“For us, as we come back face to face in the new council, which we would anticipate in the spring and summer coming, that that will become much easier to do.
“It’s a real opportunity to strengthen relationships and really build on the improvement recommendations that are there as part of the planning review.”
When the planning review was announced there was three sections, with the third being a ‘lessons learnt’ exercise involving the Local Development Plan 2. The report before councillors notes that will ‘await the conclusion of the LDP Examination in Public, which has been delayed by the issue of phosphorus’.
We offered a scenario where the LDP2 process does not complete and falls, and enquired if that happened would that piece of work still take place and complete – potentially offering ‘lessons’ for a LDP3, or even a fresh LDP in the future.
Mr Bancroft said: “We have started those lessons learned but obviously, we’re not going to complete that until we’ve got to the end of the LDP process.
“But the intention absolutely is that we will complete that process and build in those lessons learned, because it’s been a key process for us. It’s just not the right time to do it.”
Cllr Kelly gave some insight to the LDP progress, or non-progress: “The indications that have come from Lawrence Isted in regards to the Inspectors view of the LDP situation is that this will be something to be finalised with the new administration. Obviously, it’s too late in the day now.
“We’ve had to do a lot of work recently, not least relating to the phosphate issues, which has got the potential to dramatically affect all planning applications, and already has and the future of some of the sites within the LDP.”
You can read about phosphates and the impact on planning on the article “Wake up” call on phosphate issue with warning of “massive impact on the economy of Wales if it’s not resolved quickly”
(Due to the issue of conduct and training being raised, we also noted we had a related still outstanding query about the outcome of a former Executive Board member investigation something we are told is with Wrexham Council’s Legal Dept.)
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