Developers and agents see Wrexham as “an authority that is more difficult to deal with than others in the region” says Planning review
Wrexham’s planning committee is set for a shake up after a report found it had too many members and that councillors needed additional training in the decision making process.
An independent review into how the planning committee currently operates was commissioned in response to concerns raised by elected members and some local residents regarding the local authority’s performance.
The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) was appointed to undertake elements of the performance review.
As part of its work the service undertook a series of key stakeholder engagement events and meetings, including with Members, service users and key stakeholders. It also carried out a comparative analysis of performance based against best practice in Wales and England.
In a report due before executive board members on Tuesday (8 March) the findings of the review have been released, with PAS listing a series of recommendations to help improve the current planning format.
During its work the service found that “whilst the planning committee is well managed and administered effectively, there are areas, particularly around decision-making and officer/member interaction where there is need for improvement.”
This is described as having an “adverse impact upon the reputation of the council as a local planning authority and is also seemingly having a detrimental impact upon investment in the Borough.”
Recommendations for improving the current format of the planning committee include:
- Mandatory Member training to ensure clarity around role and the importance of representing Borough-wide and the public interest as well as taking into account local views
- A reduction in the number of Councillors on the committee to 12
- Investment in a new back-office computer system to replace the outdated one in use
- A review of staff resources
- Other procedural improvements
In terms of mandatory training for councillors the report states that “at times a significant proportion of Committee members appear to be preferring to act as community champions.”
It adds: “Whilst this an entirely legitimate role for a councillor, it is not appropriate when making decisions as a member of the Planning Committee.
“Planning Committee members should determine proposals in the public interest on behalf of the Borough as a whole.
“However, it appears that many decisions are made based upon local opposition without the evidence necessary to support the decision.”
The tensions seen between officers and some members of the committee is also highlighted, with PAS drawing attention particularly to a “residential site on land that is not allocated for development in the out of date Unitary Development Plan (UDP), but is intended to be allocated in the emerging Local Development Plan (LDP).”
Officially known as the “Wrexham Local Development Plan 2013 – 2028”, the first attempt at an LDP failed back in 2012 due to planning inspector concerns over the level of housing provision proposed within it.
Over the past few years a revised document, LDP2, has been drawn up, with an initial consultation taking place in 2016 and the mammoth process ongoing since then.
However the controversial document has been criticised by planning inspectors, the public and councillors alike – with Council Leader Mark Pritchard and his Independent Group withdrawing support in 2020 over gypsy and traveller sites issues.
Commenting on the local development plan, PAS states: “The planning process was sound, but the development is an ongoing cause of complaint from local residents and the process has, to some extent, damaged public and some Member confidence in the processes for plan making and the determination of planning applications.
“The need to accommodate a significant number of new housing sites through the emerging Local Development Plan (LDP) has proved controversial.
“Whilst councillors’ reservations are understood, the plan is prepared on behalf of the Council and must be the starting point for planning decision-making and only set aside where there are material considerations that indicate otherwise.”
The report also goes onto give a damning assessment from agents and developers who took part in a workshop as part of the review.
It states: “A lack of compliance with policy and guidance in decision-making has led developers and their agents to conclude that Wrexham is an authority that is more difficult to deal with than others in the region.
“They suggested to the review team that this lack of consistency is having a negative impact upon investment decisions.
“The overall perception of agents and developers was that whilst officers are providing sound advice, if applications go to Committee ‘it
then becomes something of a lottery.”
It later adds that agents and developers who regularly submit planning applications have a perception that the applications they submit to other councils in the region are subject to more informed input and debate at committee than they receive at Wrexham.
Other concerns highlighted include “tension” between some councillors and officers, with a “minority” of committee members questionning the capability of individual officers.
As a result focused training for councillors – along with a reduction in the number of committee members – is proposed.
Other points raised include improving the technology used to broadcast meetings as and when councillors return to the Guildhall, along with a streamlining of backgrounds and angles on Zoom.
It has also been suggested that all councillors are seen during meetings in the same way as members would be seen in person.
PAS also proposed that the committee would benefit from shortening in their length to allow greater focus on strategic decision-making.
The number of appeals won and lost by the council is also highlighted, with a breakdown given between committee and delegated decisions:
- 2018/19: 26 appeals (15 delegated 11 Committee)
- 2019/20: 35 appeals (17 delegated 18 committee)
- 2020/21: 31 appeals (25 delegated and six committee)
In the last 12 months six of appeals made over a delegated decision were approved whilst four of the six launched over a committee conclusion were approved.
In terms of the council officers the review found that whilst “presentations viewed appeared as being professional and proportionate”, they currently lack any visual material for those viewing the meeting on the live stream or Zoom, with the only visual input being in the printed report.”
PAS concluded that “presentations would be much more effective, and the subsequent debate would be better informed by the inclusion of photographs and plans into the presentation that can be shared by the presenting officer through screen sharing.”
It also proposed that more officers are in attendance, with PAS stating that “having a single officer presenting, advising and responding to questions is putting too much pressure on one individual.”
As an alternative it is suggested that “one or more officer present (a Senior and or Principal Planning Officer) with the Head of Service Development Management attending to provide any strategic advice would be a more effective way of supporting the meeting.”
PAS say that this would also have the added benefit of enabling wider engagement between officers and Councillors which should help reduce tensions that are potentially partly a result of the current arrangement.
The attendance of other experts (e.g. highways or NRW) should be assessed on the basis of the composition of each agenda, says the report and whether technical expertise is likely to be required in these areas, rather than requiring a Highways officer to attend all meetings.”
The report concludes: “Whilst the Planning Committee is well managed and administered effectively, there are areas, particularly around decision-making and officer/member interaction where there is need for improvement.
“This is having an adverse impact upon the reputation of the Council as a local planning authority and is also seemingly having a detrimental impact upon investment in the Borough.
“To address the issues raised in this report a package of key recommendations are made.
“These include a programme of Councillor training, including revisiting earlier decisions; amendment to the scheme of delegation to enable greater focus upon strategic decision-making; a review of officer attendance; reduction in the size of the Committee; and strengthening of officer/elected member interaction throughout planning process.
“It is important that these actions are considered as a package which together will improve the quality of decision making and enhance the Council’s reputation. Other recommendations to improve the efficiency of the meetings are also made.”
The report and its findings can be viewed in full, here. The document will be debated by members of the executive board and council at a meeting on Tuesday 8 March at 10am. The meeting will also be webcast on the Wrexham Council website.
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