Monday, 26 March 2018

A Return to Pre-Labour Decision Making Has Brought Shame

Following being named and shamed by the Conservative Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, for not having a County-wide Local Plan in place, along with 15 other Councils, most of them also Conservative, a number of threats were hurled at  Councils to improve or have the Government intervene and remove the planning process from their hands. Northumberland County UA, was one of those Councils.

Of course, with Northumberland being a Conservative target win at the May 2017 Local Government elections, and following the immediate removal of the Council's Core strategy planning document from inspection by Government, the Secretary of State has backed off a little and given them Intervention by another name. The Council must now have their core strategy guided by the Conservative led Local Government Associations Planning Advisory Service (PAS) and Sajid Javid’s threat to all 16 named Councils has not been carried out.

The very expensive PAS has been to Northumberland previously; Labour had the external auditor Deloitte look at planning in 2013 and 2014 following five years where targets were never met and the Council was shamed as it fell to the fourth last spot in the Planning League tables.

PAS gave a good deal of advice and Deloitte’s produced a comparison report in 2015, illustrating the huge improvements in both the Service and the attitude of Councillors towards declarations of interest and decision making, particularly those landowners and developers who sat on the Local Development Framework working group.

The comparison report showed the number of planning applications that made it through the process was as low as 40% in some areas and far too many applications were being forced into the committee process. Following Labour's acceptance of the reports, and the changes made to the planning process, that figure grew to over 70% of applications being dealt with at the first attempt.

Through the advice from PAS, the core strategy itself was suddenly growing and moving forward in line with Government changes and increased housing numbers. It led to the LDF Working Group and its officers working ever closer with Government. Northumberland Conservatives Leader, Peter Jackson then decided to back his team out of the working group and the local plan process, leaving the west of the County with a very low input into the production of the Councils main strategic document. From being the largest Group of Councillors delivering the new core strategy they shrank back to having no interest in it at all.

Since May 2017 we have seen the Northumberland planning regime beset by uncertainty. The Conservatives have returned to their former ways, hoodwinking the Council, through the retention of key information at their July meeting, where Councillors voted on the removal of the Core Strategy from inspection without receiving the knowledge that sat in the hands of the administration and its leadership. This, another shameful act and was only discovered and publicised by Ian Lavery MP though the Freedom of Information process.

The Secretary of State’s new decision, to have an outside body resolve and report back on the production of a new Core Strategy, is still shameful and unnecessary whatever spin the Conservative Administration wish to put on it. Questions need to be put before the ruling Conservatives and the whole Council needs to know, will the Administration back out of the North of Tyne deal once they find out that they must improve the release of their Declarations of Interest in line with the Law? And will they actually stop voting on matters that will bring further shame on the Council? Elected Landowners, Developers, Estate Agents, Land Agents and Speculators need to walk away from any interference in the planning process, and Government need to remain strong and ensure Northumberland plays its part in delivering housing growth in line with its wishes.

 

 

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