Are there two different report copies of the same Investigation Review report into Castle Point Council Development Planning? That is the question we find us asking ourselves after copies were sent to the Echo newspaper, and anonymously to ourselves over the weekend.
Unlike the Echo’s version, ours appears as though a more Critical Report, would be hard to imagine than that produced following the Peer Challenge review into Castle Point Borough Council Planning! With Headline Criticisms seemingly jumping from every single page it appears that CPBC officers and councillor heads should be hung in shame.
Whereas, the Echo report on the same Peer Challenge review, gave the impression of a low level of criticism of our local authority, even played down further by the CPBC ceo!
That our Local Authority (CPBC) finds itself in an “incredibly challenging position”, can only be described as a massive and polite understatement, whilst the CPBC leadership attempts to distance itself from its Planning department and Development Committee in an attempt to maintain a self implied level of competency.
The report uncovered “Key concerns include chairing, respect for the Chair, clarity of stages of decision, weighting of appropriate planning considerations, consistency, probity and consistent referencing of non-planning matters in planning decision making, and over dominant members. We also found a very weak understanding amongst some members and substitutes on DCC (Development Control Committee) of their role and the Codes of Conduct and other Council policies that govern behaviour and practice”
“we found a widespread perception concerning weaknesses in probity in relation to planning decision making. Such is the level of concern amongst the Executive Management Team (EMT) that two statutory letters have been sent to Members concerning inappropriate behaviour.”
This is an appalling accusation to have been made! Fortunately no individuals were named in the Report, however this leaves a smear against all members until those accused are identified, a gross unfairness for our representatives.
Other criticisms appear to have led to a change in the positions of Chairman and Vice Chairman, as can be seen in the latest Development Committee Agenda papers on CPBC website.
“Significant weaknesses exist in the operaton (sic) of the Development Control Committee (DCC). Key concerns include chairing, respect for the Chair, clarity of stages of decision, weighting of appropriate planning considerations, consistency, probity and consistent referencing of non-planning matters in planning decision making, and over dominant members. We also found a very weak understanding amongst some members and substitutes on DCC of their role and the Codes of Conduct and other Council policies that govern behaviour and practice.”
However, the new development committee Chairman cllr. Dick and new Vice Chairman cllr. Sharp have both strongly held views on severely limiting development numbers, especially on Green Belt. Whilst we, the Canvey Green Belt Campaign, support this as a policy, whether CPBC will be left open to criticism and exploited by developers etc, at appeal or Local Plan examination stage may be another matter, that only time will reveal!
The criticism of cllr. Hart, ex chairman may appear harsh, having been promoted to the position comparatively recently. It is apparent, whilst holding fairly strong views, he has put in appropriate effort and appeared to clearly take his role seriously, however direct criticism is aimed through the report at him.
Given cllr Hart’s apparent efforts, much of this criticism perhaps should be directed at council officers in the level and quality of training being offered to him and the other committee members.
However there has been, over recent years, use made of the “adopted” policy of approving development on, so called non-“Virgin” Green Belt land. Two proposals of which were granted on Canvey Island, one for a bricks and mortar built equestrian centre and one for a residential care home, both sites on Canvey Island west ward.
Whether these transgressions from the 1998 Adopted Local Plan, with its protection of all Green Belt land, as directed within Planning Guidance unless exceptional circumstances suggest otherwise, would form part of the criticisms raised, is not made apparent.
The Report continues; “We found incidences of a significant breakdown in relationships between some Members and senior officers relating to the culture of policy plan making and planning decision making at Castle Point.” “The perception of probity issues” “in itself is a serious leadership issue which needs to be tackled at a senior level. It was our impression from the peer review that these dysfunctional relationships are badly affecting morale, draining capacity and leading to negative and defensive behaviours that are getting in the way of productive joint working and acting as ‘one team’.”
That there is / has been “significant breakdown in relationships” comes as no surprise, as incidents have emerged anecdotally and in the press, over the course of some years. What is apparent is that senior officers and party leaders have had ample time to address these issues in the interests of the Borough, developers and residents. The ambition of working as “one team” is all too rare in politics of All Levels these days!
The criticism above will add to the apparent uneasiness with the perceived unfair representation of Canvey Island residents. The implication is that some development committee members have their own Agendas and that, of the number of decisions made during planning meetings, too many go against the advice of officers for unsubstantiated reasoning!
“There are significant opportunities for the Council to address these issues and recast the DCC to a Strategic Planning Committee with potentially a smaller more focussed group of well-trained Members with key competencies and behaviours to judge development against the development plan and material planning considerations.”
“Recommendation 2 . Address the issues identified and reconstitute a new modernised strategic Development Management Committee with a strategic focus – including a review of size, composition, behaviours, skills and complete modernisation of processes. Political leaders from all parties should ensure that Members with the appropriate skills and behaviours are appointed to the Committee.”
The Report is dated April 1st, 3 months have now passed by with no official, acknowledgement nor announcement to Castle Point Residents. It says much of the Arrogance and Control of the heads of CPBC that they desired to keep this Report, despite being funded by Canvey and mainland Residents, should be kept secret from us all.
In response to the report sees Castle Point Council development committee continuing with a similar membership set up to previous, ignoring the suggested opportunity to respond to the Peer Review team’s specific recommendation to stream line the committee size and uplift the competency levels by maintaining the committee membership numbers and by including 4 new members with no previous planning experience, three of these as substitutes.
“At present the area is producing less than half of the homes required. Without the adoption and development of large scale master planning sites in the Local Plan, the planning system is not able to deliver on meeting identified corporate priorities such as affordable homes, new schools, better integrated health facilities, enhanced access to green space, safe walking and cycling routes and improved highway infrastructure. Currently while approximately 100-150 homes are built each year the Borough is missing out on intergrated co-ordination and delivery that can lead to wider community gain and is essential for building sustainable communities.”
The so called “wider community gain” is a Never – Neverland dream, with very few Affordable homes being accrued as a percentage of market priced Housing developed, due to Developers Viability arguments. Even then facilities, agreed via S106 agreements, will generally only amount to on-site improvements. Whereas, there is a requirement that funding for improvement of the Canvey Island Sea Defence will need to come from localised sources. It was deemed desirable that development within the Borough should be reasonably expected to contribute to such Sea Defence funding. Castle Point Council have sought not 1 Penny from any developer. Given the scale of development in Canvey west ward this is a travesty and is storing up major financial issues for the future!
“Developers and house builders, we spoke to told us that presently they are avoiding investing in Castle Point despite what they saw as the area’s obvious locational advantages. They saw making large scale investment decisions in Castle Point just too risky based on this situation. This is of significant concern and of reputational damage to CPBC and needs to be address urgently.”
Developers have the means of presenting their case of point in a way that Peer group planners and councillors would more likely agree with, rather than object to. There are clear Development Constraints, whether Green Belt or Flood Risk, to be taken into account, something that the likes of Persimmon, with their Land Bank portfolio in mind, would care little about.
“Officers have worked to engage with Members throughout all stages of Local Plan development yet there remains a deep rooted predilection to revert to a well-used Member statement that the Local Plan is the officer’s Plan. This is incorrect and it is crucial that all Members own the Local Plan and are responsible for what happens as a consequence of it.”
This, as Canvey Island residents should all be aware by now, is Un-True, The Local Plan Task and Finish Group work, now conveniently eradicated from the CPBC Local Plan Archives, would indicate their work on the specific Canvey Island Constraints on development, Hazardous Industries and Flood Risk both Tidal and Surface Water, was ended abruptly by a senior officer. Members were led to believe they had agreed a further complete meeting on the Topics, instead none was organised and officers and the Leaders went ahead and published “their” Local Plan!
I wonder whether that point was put to the Peer Challenge review Team!
Regarding the number of Planning Proposals that have been overturned by the CPBC DCC the Peer review group stated; “It is important to note that in the last two years the vast majority of DCC overturns have been in situations where officers’ recommendations have been to refuse housing development in the green belt whereas the Committee has agreed to allow development. If non-material matters are being considered in relation to the decision making it potentially throws(sic) doubt on the validity of the debate and decision-making process.”
Surely there are mechanisms in place to address this issue, however on the one hand the Peer Challenge Team identify a lack of development approvals, and then they suggest that the Development Committee members should not be granting approvals against officer advice. Housing Delivery numbers would be even lower in that case!
“we see an important opportunity for the wider political leadership and opposition party to develop a coherent long-term growth vision for Castle Point. This needs to contain a stronger narrative around the benefits of growth for residents,”
“Current delivery against target is only at 48 per cent and Castle Point is the joint 10th worst council out of the 343 other councils in England on this measure. Previous housing targets were in the region of 250-280 dwellings per year with delivery in the area of only 100-150 dwellings a year. The Local Housing Needs requirement raises the target to 370 dwellings per year while the non-approved Local Plan aimed for 350 dwellings per year.”
It truly does appear that Castle Point council and Residents, will one way or another, have Development, Housing Numbers and its Delivery foisted upon Us!
Government have claimed it is for local authorities to decide their own Housing Need and Delivery, well this Local Government Association inquisition of Development Committee and Council members, albeit self imposed by CPBC heads, have done a grand job of suggesting that Westminster, the civil service and Developers retain the whip hand!
Once again we wonder whether this “challenging,” Planning Improvement Peer Challenge, will be disclosed ahead of the next Council meeting to consider the Local Plan 2019?
Of course we must bear in mind that this “challenging” report is the opinion of invited outsiders, indeed included in the text appears a series of questions raised by CPBC themselves. An invite to condemn, to which, no doubt, CPBC members will most likely disagree and rightfully have their own opinions.
The Peer Review team consisted of: • Paul Barnard – Service Director, Strategic Planning & Infrastructure Plymouth City Council; • Cllr Dale Birch – Conservative Member, Deputy Leader & Planning Committee Member, Bracknell Forest Council; • Julie Baird – Assistant Director for Growth, West Suffolk Council; • Stephen Barker – Principal Consultant, Planning Advisory Service; and • Robert Hathaway – Peer Challenge Manager, LGA associate. And it was made clear that further support is available from the Planning Advisory Service and Local Government Association, suggesting that perhaps CPBC are not currently best equipped on an officer level.
Thanks go to those within the Castle Point Borough who are willing to whistle blow or to leak documentation of such local importance.
This blog post has been constructed in good faith under the assumption that the report received is in fact a correct and unaltered version of the original. Should this assumption turn out to be incorrect we will happily alter or retract the relevant parts in the copy above.