Courier 21 March 2003 Front Page and Page 8: Editor's Column
By Ian Read
The planning department at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has been criticised by government inspectors for being slow, wasting money and lacking direction.
Council chiefs promised a probe of the department and did not rule out top-level job losses after the latest Audit Commission report, which comes hot on the heels of its damning council evaluation in January 2003.
Inspectors gave the service one star saying it was below national targets for the time it takes to process applications. It also concluded the planning department - called development control service - was "poor" at monitoring its spending and was "uncertain" of improving enough to secure a better rating next time.
Council development control manager David Prentis said: "We had a 19 per cent increase in (planning) applications in two years so we increased the number of staff we have working on applications. Now we have got a better balance between the total number of applications and the number of people who do the work.
"We accept the judgment as being fair but the next time we will certainly be a good service and hopefully an excellent service."
But Audit Commission inspector Paul Chambers said: "We are not convinced that the council or the service has the capacity to deliver all of the improvements needed in the time allowed."
The planning department employs 33 full-time staff and costs £1.9 million a year. Council chief executive Rodney Stone has already announced intentions to cut £1 million of council overheads in the next four years.
He said: "We will be looking to see whether there are more managers in the service than the service needs or whether the service can be run more efficiently with fewer managers."
"The demands that face Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 2003 are not the same as when we set up our structure four or five years ago."
Mr Stone added he might centralise the entire department at Tunbridge Wells Town Hall - possibly shutting the Cranbrook arm of the borough council - to boost efficiency.
He said: "That improvement in speed will not be at the expense of quality because we believe a first class service is important."
Cllr David Mills, said: "We accept that the people in charge are trying to improve things but they should never have let it get to this stage anyway - the service that is being given is not very good."
Tunbridge Wells MP Archie Norman said: "The findings of the report are a wake-up call for the council and provide an opportunity for prompt action to be taken as a result."
David Coleman, chairman of the Kent Association of Parish and Town Councils in Tunbridge Wells, said: "The borough council knows it should make drastic improvements - not just in development control but right across the board and is working together with parish and town councils in order to improve."
Overall the report labelled the service "fair", with "more positive than negative elements". Plus points included the "dedicated and motivated" frontline staff, the speed of processing applications was improving and it has become more focused on what local people want.
Planning portfolio holder Cllr Roy Bullock said: "The recommendations are useful and will help us to deliver a development control service which in every respect meets the expectations of our community."
and - Editor's Comment - The Courier 21.03.2003, Page 8,
"Stating what we all know - An Audit Commission report has concluded that Tunbridge Wells Borough Council's planning department is under-performing."
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