A panel of councillors were surprised at colleagues’ lack of knowledge of the council’s planning system, and some parish council representatives were referred to as “doughnuts”.
As part of the review of the Planning Service at the council, a six-week consultation was carried out amongst all the elected members and parish councils in the borough.
Wednesday’s (9 February) Environment Task & Finish Group was asked to note the anonymised responses and agree that they will be used to inform the Planning Review.
Although as well as noting them, some feedback on the answers was also given.
The comment was made as the group considered the parish council responses to the question ‘How do you usually contact the Bedford Borough Council Planning Department if you need further information?’
Councillor Stephen Moon (Conservative, Great Barford Ward), who was chairing the meeting, said: “This is very similar to the profile of the elected members’ responses, one or two doughnuts and the rest have got it sorted.”
“You’re not asking for them to be identified are you?” asked Councillor Kay Burley (Labour, Kempston Central & East Ward.
“How are you spelling doughnuts, Jeremy, just for the minutes,” Jon Shortland, chief officer for planning and highways, asked.
The first points the group looked at were councillor views on contacting the planning department and the appropriate person.
Mr Shortland said officers do not disclose their telephone numbers as they would be “snowed under” with calls while trying to work on something else
“The preferred method is for the contact to speak to the help desk who will send an email to that case officer saying’ please ring this person back at your convenience,” he said.
Councillor Moon said: “I’m talking about for elected members, I’m thinking less to do with telephone calls because the Help Desk isn’t always prompt, to put it mildly, to respond.
Mr Shortland said emails to planning enquiries will get passed on to the right person.
Councillor Moon said: “Well there’s the question of identifying the person first and I’m surprised they find it difficult to find the [officer] because, yes, applications have the officer in the information box.”
“They do yes, I’m not sure why they’re finding that difficult,” Mr Shortland replied.
Councillor Moon said: “That, and a number of other areas, indicate to me that there’s some useful training, not just for planning committee members, but for members accessing planning.
“Even it was just in writing as a guide because failure to identify the officer seems a very strange error for an experienced councillor to make.
“So we’ve identified that as a particular problem, so there are certainly a significant minority of members who find it difficult a) to identify the planning officer, and b) to work out how to approach him.
“Which is a puzzle to me but never mind.”
While progressing through the responses, councillor Moon said it appears that some members don’t seem to know about the weekly planning alert.
“I don’t know some of these responses, I don’t fully understand and it might indicate the need for there to be training, not just for members of the planning committee, but for members using the planning service,” he said.
Moving on to using the planning portal to search for applications, councillor Moon said: “I’m not sure why anybody should search.
“I’m puzzled by some of the answers where they don’t seem to know that there’s a map that you can look at.”
Mr Shortland said: “What we’re picking up here would certainly be for us to write a simple guide for members and sending that out now and then on a regular basis going forward.”
Jeremy Welch, senior democratic services officer, said: “Offering a refresh might be a good idea, especially if it can be worded in a way that people don’t feel guilty.”
Mr Shortland said: “No, we can express it as ‘please come and learn about the new ways to use the system’”.
Councillor Burley said: “Because we know you don’t know.”
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter