Finger pointing over problems with Rother’s planning service

Rother councillors have exchanged barbs over the running of the council’s planning service.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 3:27 pm
Bexhill Town Hall SUS-200928-133414001

On Monday (September 6), Rother District Council’s cabinet discussed the results of a review of the authority’s planning service by local government consultants iESE.

The council has not made the iESE report publicly available, but papers from the meeting say it highlights “significant pressures” as well as long term difficulties in recruitment and issues with the software the service uses.

The discussion comes as the council faces a significant backlog in planning applications, which has seen the authority bring in outsourcing firm Capita to help handle its caseload.

Speaking at the meeting, cabinet member for planning Jonathan Vine-Hall (Ind) said the planning service had been ‘failing’ for some time and put the blame firmly on the previous Conservative administration. 

He said: “I’ve spent the first year and a half in this administration in a state of frustration, trying to get those in management of the planning services to listen and address what have been really long term problems.

“These are not problems that have not just appeared overnight. They should have been addressed a long time ago by those who were in administration. They simply failed this authority, they failed our residents [and] allowed a very poorly resourced department to continue to fail. That is a great sadness.”

He added: “I don’t want what I am saying to be seen as a criticism of our planning officers because they have been asked to operate with outdated resources and an outdated cultural approach to planning.

“It is not a surprise that we have a very high turnover of staff – two-and-a-half times that of our neighbouring authorities – because they have been asked to work in a difficult cultural environment [and] a difficult physical environment.”

Cllr Vine-Hall comments came in for some stringent criticism from Conservative councillor and former council leader Carl Maynard, however. 

Speaking to the LDRS, Cllr Maynard said: “I take issue with Cllr Vine-Hall’s narrative. During our tenure – which was 20 years, 12 under my leadership – the planning service was both resilient and planning applications were dealt with during the correct time frame.

“I and other councillors have never before seen such a high caseload of disgruntled applicants and objectors to a planning service that has completely broken down under the reins of Cllr Vine-Hall. I would be unsurprised to see the government intervene.

“Only now have they brought in Capita – who provide agency planning officers costing £160,000 – to try to deal with the sizeable backlog. 

“This is a disgrace and an embarrassing situation and one that has been and continues to be costly for applicants. Rother’s planning service is now the poor man within East Sussex. 

“Large applications that have seen appeals lost by Rother under the Alliance have also lost the council new homes bonus and cost ratepayers to defend the decisions. 

“We’ve recently lost the executive director, head of planning and head of development control. Staff morale couldn’t be lower. Cllr Vine-Hall should do the decent thing and resign without delay. “

Cllr Maynard also reiterated his party’s longstanding criticism of Cllr Vine-Hall’s dual role as both cabinet member for planning and chairman of the council’s planning committee.

At a planning meeting last month Cllr Vine-Hall told councillors that Capita was working on around 303 outstanding applications – roughly equivalent to around three months of proposals.