CHRONICLE: When planning policy meets political reality

RAY QUANT is Ceredigion’s deputy head of council and a cabinet member with enough portfolios to fill a small suitcase – legal and governance, people and democratic organization and services. Plus, there’s his role as an independent advisor to Borth.

You imagine that anyone carrying such a large amount of specialized luggage must know all about council protocol. But it looks like Ray has some catching up to do.

Why else would he challenge council officials over a planning application which they demonstrate – with clinical impartiality – should be rejected because it clearly breaches the local development plan councilors themselves approved nine years ago?

Why, moreover, on the eve of a crucial meeting of the authority’s governance and audit committee to discuss scathing criticism from Audit Wales, the public sector watchdog, of the longstanding disregard legal planning policy by advisors to the Ceredigion planning committee?

Mr. Quant intervenes in the case of a Llandre couple who wish to renovate a mobile home in their garden to make it a holiday accommodation. The problem: it would clash head-on with Ceredigion’s local development plan, a detailed policy document long debated by elected officials and finally adopted by them in 2013.

It’s clear on the subject. No more static caravans, or huts or chalets, for tourism will be permitted west of the A487 in order to protect the special landscape quality of the Ceredigion coastal area. More than that, underlines the town planning official, the approval of Llandre’s offer “risks setting a precedent for the uncontrolled establishment of caravans in private gardens, with owners then subsequently submitting requests for change of allocation to holiday accommodation, the result being detrimental to the particular landscape quality of the coastal area of ​​Ceredigion.

Ray Quant told the planning committee: “I am not aware of any other caravan being used to promote tourist accommodation in the Llandre region. Therefore, I do not believe that granting a change of use would upset the balance of tourist caravans in the region.”

His special pleading effectively disregards the fact that local plans are at the heart of the planning system, with a statutory requirement that decisions must be made in accordance with them, unless “material considerations” do not exist. indicate otherwise.

The point is underscored in the Audit Wales report, which states that Ceredigion’s planning committee “regularly makes decisions to approve planning applications based on non-material considerations… (which) also contradict Ceredigion’s own code of conduct. advice for planning advisors and agents. as local and national planning policies.

The audit review lays bare the stark record of Ceredigion planning advisers who repeatedly ignore agent recommendations and approve applications despite running counter to the local development plan.

It reveals a scene of near anarchy. In an extraordinary three-month period in 2019-20, every decision made by members of the Development Control Committee (the planning committee) was against the advice of officers, compared to a Welsh average of 9.9%.

Between 2019 and 2021, more than 71% of decisions on average disregarded officer directives. Over the same period, Ceredigion’s record was the worst of the 24 local planning authorities in Wales.

Rebellion can be a very good thing, and planning advisers told the Audit they were “passionate about helping their communities”. There is no doubt that this is true. The problem is that Ceredigion’s record is one of industry-wide councilor dissent, extreme enough to threaten the planning authority with dysfunction. It’s not new either. The fairly regular disregard for Ceredigion’s planning policy dates back at least to the 1990s.

An obvious danger is that where it is argued that particular planning offers should be treated as exceptions to the general rules, applicants for whom no such case is made may feel aggrieved and wonder whether this is because they don’t know the right people. At such a point, confidence in the democratic process can be seriously shaken.

One solution is for elected officials to now become closely involved in the deliberations of a working group already made up of members and elected officials aimed at producing a “replacement” local plan. If councilors feel hemmed in by the current document, let them take a democratic route to the changes they would like to see.

At the same time, they and the public need to be acutely aware of another problem that is closely related to councillors’ disregard for the current local plan. The audit reveals “long-standing” vacancies in the planning department, with “worrying” staffing capacity, as some officers have seen their workloads double in the past two years.

On a human level, it is intolerable. But are the severe staffing shortages surprising? Advisors must remember urgently that officers do not make planning application recommendations based on whims or personal preferences, but on legal requirements and policies. If their painstaking work is constantly thwarted for flimsy or irrelevant reasons – as is the case in Ceredigion – it would hardly be surprising if they were severely demoralized and began to wonder if they were just wasting their time.

The news spreads, consequence that the difficulties of recruitment highlighted by the Audit could be only one inevitable consequence of the perversity of the elected officials.

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