No organisation can expect to be perfect. This is particularly true of complex organisations like local authorities. There will always be problems, which is why monitoring and accountability is so important. But this depends on openness and transparency.
Labour Group Rejects Scrutiny of Local Plan
On Monday 5 December the ruling Labour group used the full Council meeting to rubber stamp the adoption with amendments of the Local Plan for submission to public inquiry, despite the Conservative proposal to refer to the Cabinet for proper scrutiny.
Inevitably the Conservatives lost the vote on a simple Yes or No. On misleading advice from the Chief Executive the Mayor refused to allow either a show of hands or a name recording of the vote.
One of the main justifications for referring the matter to Cabinet was the lack of a report setting out the consultation comments and officers responses, and why a handful of amendments were made and not others.
The debate can be heard on the webcast of the meeting on the Council website.
I had emailed all Councillors in advance of the meeting with the link to my discussion about the authoritarian manner of how the Local Plan was being considered. I also suggested to the Conservative Leader that his group consider using the Council Debate mechanism to discuss the process issues and seek to refer the Plan to Scrutiny and then Cabinet, and to insist on a recorded vote.
Lack of Joined Up Working in Council
An example of the failure of one section of the Council in act in support of another has come to light through a Freedom of Information question.
There ‘is a transport statement in the planning documents for the development at Old Dairy Court, 7 Meadow Stile, CR0 1NH indicating that the development should be a car free due to the close proximity to good transport links and it is sited within a controlled parking zone which could impact on established resident permit holders.’
There’ does not appear to be any planning conditions (which are legally binding on the parties including the Council) precluding the issue of permits at the development’.
The Council confirms that resident/visitor permits have been issued to 6 of the properties in Old Dairy Court during 2012-2016.
This failure to act on planning restrictions is partly due to the fact that conditions have only been placed on larger developments. ‘(P)rocedures are being put in place to extend restrictions to other smaller developments”.
I emailed Stuart King, Cabinet member for Transport and Environment saying that I would have thought the whole PCN system was digitised, and asking whether it is worth looking at this issue?. He has replied: ‘We have some archaic IT systems and legacy paper-based processes within the council. There is a plan to migrate them all onto better IT platforms but sadly the achievement of that is frustrated by availability of resource.’ I have suggested to Sean Fitzsimons, Chair of Scrutiny that the IT systems might be something the Committee could usefully look at.
Council Hides Behind Commercial Confidentiality Again
Yet another example of so-called ‘commercial confidentiality’ has come to light through a Freedom of Information question.
Becca Martin wanted to know how much was spent each year for the last 5 years to private companies for medical assessments as part of a homeless assessment, and in ‘the last year how many medical assessments have been paid for as part of a homeless assessment.
The Council considers this information to be commercially sensitive information and covered by the exemption provided in Section 43 of Freedom of Information Act. This exemption applies to information which if disclosed would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person, including the Council. ‘We feel that this would reveal a schedule of rates that would give a competitor a commercial advantage.’
Ms Martin also wanted to know in the last year how many homeless applications had been received that have required a vulnerability assessment (ie. no children), have a list of the companies involved, how many of the assessments have supported the awarding of a homeless duty. The Council has refused to provide the information because it would take too long to find the information, which is within the rules of the Act.
Ms Martin has now requested an internal review of the handling of her FOI request. She puts a counter-argument against the ‘commercial confidentiality’ including ‘that the public interest in knowing the rates is greater than the commercially sensitive information that is revealed. In part because it is important for the public to know how much the council spends of tax payers money per vulnerability assessment. And also in part because these companies make the information about rates public, such as Now Medical (one of the biggest companies) have here https://www.nowmedical.co.uk/vulnerabili…
She also makes the point that the ‘records cannot be so bad that you do not know who you are paying. It will also be unlikely to be more than 1 or 2 companies and these should be set by the homeless department and should be easy to find out.’