‘It’s a whitewash’ – Councillors dispute findings of external review of planning committee ordered by senior Doncaster officers

Councillors have reacted with anger after senior Doncaster Council officers called in outside help to look into the planning committee.

Thursday, 24th January 2019, 10:29 am
Updated Thursday, 24th January 2019, 10:33 am

A leaked report reveals an external panel found the committee’s performance is ‘at risk’ due the ‘ongoing dysfunction’ with it being ‘a major distraction and drain of time and effort’.

The review was carried out by deputy leader of Ipswich Council, Coun Bryony Rudkin and Bury-based planning consultant John Cummins who attended and watched a number of meetings in person and via the council’s YouTube channel. 

Coun Andy Pickering

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The findings of the 17-page report has prompted anger from some on the planning committee. 

And one council employee who didn’t wished to be named said the review was a ‘whitewash’ and was ordered it because senior officers ‘were not getting what they wanted’. 

But council bosses said it is good practice to ‘continually look’ at improving services and the review was undertaken to ‘ensure that all the planning processes were efficient and effective’. 

The report also said members ‘don’t appear to trust the advice offered by their professional officers’ and heard evidence of rude, ‘dismissive and discourteous behaviour towards officers in both public and private arenas’.

Coun Jonathan Wood

The panel said this resulted in ‘defensive behaviour’ from officers which at times was ‘unprofessional’.

The report also noted a ‘high number’  of councillors going against officer’s recommendations and said this was down to a ‘lack of trust’ adding overturns of recommendations should be ‘unusual and exceptional’ and ‘not the norm’. 

One source inside Doncaster Council said: “It’s a complete whitewash I think it’s an attempt by the executive in the council to reign them in because they don’t like some of the decisions they’ve made.

“In a nutshell, the executive were not getting what they wanted and they ordered this review.

“The chief executive and senior officers will have told these people what to look for and what to investigate and they’ll have seen the preliminary report before it goes out. 

“The public, parish councillors, planning agents etc were not consulted on this. I think the contents would be very different if they were.”

Recommendations include re-thinking site visits as the the current approach is said to be a ‘delaying’ tactic’ by members ‘not happy with the officer reports’. Meetings were also said to be poorly attended and not recorded.

Members are also to undergo extra training and poor behaviour is set to be challenged more rigorously. 

Planning committee member Jonathan Wood, Conservative councillor for Sprotbrough, said: “I think the review has missed the important group which is the public and the planning service customers and the parish councillors. 

“The whole angle of democracy has been completely ignored here because there are people who believe that planning works.

“There’s comments which say we shouldn’t be so questioning of officers and the like but that’s what we’re elected to do and while there maybe issues on the periphery on how you ask a question you get targeted as a troublemaker when you cause waves.

“I do think that making private papers and things we have to discuss behind closed doors public is a great thing and I’m encouraged to see that’s been recommended.”

Mexborough First Coun Andy Pickering who is also on the planning committee took issue with some of the reviews findings. 

He said: “They didn’t include it as a recommendation but they advised planning committee members should not be allowed to vote on matters in their own ward. 

“I assume it’s not going to find its way to a final result but I’m not prepared to accept that. 

If they decide to implement that, I would be writing to the chief legal officer to review it. 

“I don’t accept quite a lot of things that are in it and some are quite contradictory if you pick it out. 

“They say officers are defensive and feel unable to reply and yet further down the same document it says that members ignore them when officers challenge them. 

“Which is it? Are officers defensive and are frightened to speak up or are they challenging members and we’re ignoring it? You can’t have it both ways. 

“I do think there’s some points that members would agree with, there is some good stuff which I totally agree with.”

Scott Cardwell, assistant director for development at Doncaster Council, said: “We are always looking to improve services to make them as efficient and effective as possible and use independent peer reviews as part of this process.

“The review of the planning processes led to some very positive sessions which have provided some clear direction on how we can improve our planning function. We will now be acting on the recommendations made in the report.”