Courier 21 February 2003 NEWS SPECIAL

Surveyor calls for council to be held accountable for its decisions
Plea for hit squad to sort out planning department

By Trisha Fermor

The government should send in a hit squad to shake up Tunbridge Wells Borough Council planning department, which is failing to give value for money and lacks transparency, a leading chartered surveyor has said.

Judith Morris said she was speaking out on behalf of professionals who felt the same but were too scared to criticise the department for fear of jeopardising their businesses.
Miss Norris, who has run her own practice for 16 years, wants to take up the problems with her MP Ann Widdecombe after a catalogue of delays, unanswered correspondence and decisions she considers to be irrational.
She said these decisions had often cost her clients. Many could face bills of 20,000 or more by the time they had gone to appeal.

On occasions, she said, council officers under delegated powers had recommended approval for a scheme only to have their decisions reversed, "apparently for no reason whatsoever", further up the managerial chain.
She stressed she was not criticising all officers and had praise for Cranbrook-based planning officer Alan Bringloe. His knowledge of the area and its planning history was of great benefit.
But, she claimed, others appeared to allow personal views to cloud their judgment. She said it appeared that applicants who had crossed swords with planners found that subsequent applications were turned down as a matter of course.

Her latest letter of complaint to borough council chief executive Rodney Stone is over the handling of her plans to develop the former Dr Barnado's home at Hawkhurst. Owned by her client Abbey Care Homes it closed iN August last year [ 2002 ] after housing adults with learning disabilities.
The company wants to convert the house into several homes and build houses in the grounds.
At a meeting on November 27-last year, Miss Norris said, planning officer Peter Turner had expressed concern about traffic issues and the density of homes. After the meeting she told him that on receipt of his letter outlining his concerns, she would discuss with her clients withdrawing the application. By December 12 she had received no such letter. On December 16 the letter, dated four days earlier, arrived at her office. As she was out of the country she was unable to withdraw the application in person until December 24 and this was done by fax.
However, she was then, told by the council that the application had been refused. The notice was dated December 20, a week before the 13 week deadline for major applications.
The delays, she told Mr Stone, had caused very serious financial implications for her clients.
In her letter to Mr Stone she said: "It is about time planning officers were made aware of the consequences of their actions."
"Time and time again poor and ill-considered decisions have adverse financial implications on the applicants."

The council then decided to place tree preservation orders on the land without reference to her or her clients.
In her application a detailed and costly tree survey was included, showing the numbered trees were not worthy of merit.
She told Mr Stone she was concerned that a tree officer could order the preservation of trees that were totally unworthy and, in one case, dead.
She concluded: "Your council should be held accountable for this treatment of my clients."

She said she had numerous other examples of the department's alleged inconsistencies. They included a wrangle over the ownership of a strip of land at the former abattoir site in Lamberhurst and financial hardship caused to a client after he was led to believe an application would be successful only to have it refused by another officer.

Miss Norris cited the recent damning Audit Commission report, which said the council was below average in 44 per cent of its assessed services for 2001/02.
She was adamant the planning department needed reform. Uncontentious applications should be dealt with by means of delegated powers so more time could be devoted to the more important applications.
She believed the right of parish councils to "call in" controversial applications to be discussed by committee should remain rather than the much-criticised alternative of decisions resting with one cabinet member.

Unless it achieves better audit results the council could be faced with a complete Whitehall squad of troubleshooters. Miss Norris said: "I would like to see a hit squad move in and sort this council out.
"I deal with many other councils, including Wealden and Ton-bridge and Mailing. They deal with applications more quickly and you have frank and open discussions with officers. "At Tunbridge Wells I have had meetings where they do not even seem to be prepared. My clients are spending thousands of pounds in planning fees and getting little in return."

The Courier 21 February 2003 -
THE BOROUGH COUNCIL REPLIES - David Prentis, Development Control Manager

Development Control Manager David Prentis said:
"The planning service is here to protect the environment of the borough.
One of our objectives is to work with applicants to improve the quality of development proposals. We do this in various ways, for example the council pubishes a range of planning guidance ot assist developers in drawing up their proposals.
Last year [ 2002 ] we had to cut back on teh amount of officer time we could spend on pre-application discussions. This was due to the very high workload we were experiencing.
We had to concentrate on determining applications and responding to appeals.
Since then we have improved application processing times. Iam pleased to say we have also extended the amount of pre-application advice we can offer.
For example, for larger residential and commercial schemes we now encourage developers to come and talk to us before putting in an application.
We recognise the value of pre-application discussions and intend to extend this aspect of our work further.
We are also developing new ways of encouraging developers to involve local people at an early stage, for example by holding local consultation meetings."

TWBC Development Control Manager, David Prentis' role in the Telephone House Saga

What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications ?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC

2003, the questions are still unanswered - they are as intriguing as in 2001.
April 2002 - CALA Homes bought this planning application.
With an ever increasing awareness of the flaws in the design? - Foundations for sustainable and viable development?

A guide through Tunbridge Wells Local Press since January 2003 - "Failing Council under Scrutiny"