RAPID improvements to the way Craven District Council deals with planning applications have been promised after a report identified a number of issues including its currently ‘inefficient’ and ‘unprofessional’ planning committee and the sometimes ‘bullying’ behaviour of councillors.

The report, which will go before the council’s Policy Committee next week, follows a virtual Local Government Association ‘peer challenge’ review carried out by expert local government officers and councillors over two days in September, in which they they talked to councillors, officers and external partners, and also observed online planning committee meetings.

In his report to Tuesday’s Policy meeting, director of services, Paul Ellis says as anticipated the report had uncovered a ‘ number of problems’ and recommendations for improvement.

“The problems at Craven are not simply an issue about resources, but also about culture and efficiency. The peer team believe that the overall planning service could be more efficient if processes and delegated powers were streamlined, staff skills and knowledge were used more effectively, and stakeholder engagement was improved."

The feedback report of the peer challenge said while there had been improvements in decision making of planning applications in the last year, and that there was a ‘talented, enthusiastic and committed group of staff within the planning service, the council had ‘found it difficult to attract and maintain good senior planning officers’ due to a national shortage.’

There was ‘no clear political or strategic managerial leadership and the suspension of planning meetings at the start of the coronavirus crisis in March until July, when meeting began to be held remotely, had meant fortnightly meetings to clear the backlog and a ‘big ask’ of staff resources.

While the council invested in its planning staff by funding higher education, there was no continuous improvement, and councillors were ‘reluctant or resistant’ to attend training.

Mistakes had happened in officers’ reports and there was no evidence of the council learning from other authorities planning services.

A change of leadership of the planning committee had improved the way it worked, but the new chairman, Linda Brockbank, needed support to be ‘ stronger and more confident in her knowledge of how to run a committee’.

Planning committee meetings were also taking about ‘three times longer’ and getting through a third of the cases of a typical council.

Communication between officers and councillors, and also between the planning department and stakeholders, such as parish councils and planning agents, was widely acknowledged to be ‘poor’, while the behaviour of councillors towards officers, between councillors, and sometimes tensions between officers at meetings demonstrated a ‘disjointed and adversarial culture’.

Committee meetings were currently ‘inefficient’ says the report, and could come across as ‘unprofessional’, giving a very poor image of the council. The behaviour of some councillors could come across as bullying, and needed to be dealt with.

The report says: "Committee meetings are currently inefficient and can sometimes come across as unprofessional, giving a very poor public image of Craven District Council. Meetings are long and yet have short agendas, currently with a maximum of three planning applications to be considered. Councillor behaviours do sometimes come across as bullying in nature and this needs to be dealt with.

"The senior political leadership of the Council together with the monitoring officer should take responsibility to address this in order to protect people and the council’s reputation. Potential investors will be viewing the planning committees and would currently be uncertain as to the reaction they may receive."

And it adds:“Senior officers recognise there are challenges and issues, but no-one appears to own them or take actions to address them."

The report puts forward a number of recommendations, including putting in place a political leader to ‘address poor member behaviour at committee meetings’.

Cllr Simon Myers, recently made lead member for planning, said: “The council leader Richard Foster, and I, with the support of the council, requested this review be carried out as we recognised the service has faced significant challenges and the public have raised a number of concerns.

“Our Local Plan is now in place and the council wants to ensure it has a fit for purpose planning service for the future. It’s important that we learn from this review and the faults that have been highlighted and ensure we are providing the best possible planning service for our residents.

“Members and officers will work closely together to improve the quality of our planning services and the effectiveness of our planning committees. Poor communication with members, stakeholders, parish councils and the public has been identified, and will be put right.”

Next Tuesday's Policy Committee will consider a proposed improvement plan and an 'improvement board' to oversee its implementation.

Recommendations in the LGA peer report also include the adoption of a 'single team approach' to planning and the establishing of a 'clear, transparent, customer focus' and also improved communications with parish councils.