Home > Uncategorized > Local Council decisons that really aren’t that local at all…

Local Council decisons that really aren’t that local at all…

It was great to be present at the Annual Parish Meeting of Ashchurch Rural Parish Council within my Ward last night. But listening to questions raised within Public Participation reminded me of just how easy it can be for Councillors to take for granted what people actually know about the 3 different Tiers of Local Government and how equally easy it is for problems to arise when the expectation of the Electorate is simply left unmanaged.

As an Elected Member and Chair of Licensing at Tewkesbury Borough Council myself, I have witnessed first-hand how the frequent misunderstanding of where responsibility actually lies for the different functions of the tiers of Government can not only cause confusion, but create serious disappointment. More often than not voters can be left feeling that Councillors are completely out of touch – even at times when some of us are actually just as frustrated as the residents from within our Wards and feel obstructed by the views of bureaucrats that most of us will probably never meet.

Perhaps the area where this problem is most evident is within the quasi-judicial functions of Planning and Licensing.

The Planning process itself creates an almost continual air of controversy and mistrust; a matter not helped by the seemingly ubiquitous tales of corruption and ‘back-handers’ which seem to accompany a good percentage of conversations on the subject. Such tales of course would suggest that real decisions are actually made at Local Planning Committees, but the truth is not so straightforward, with Councillors and Officers (under delegated powers) simply interpreting Planning Law which has been set centrally by Officials and MP’s who may never have even been within a hundred miles of the location to which the Legislation will be used to apply.

Such a system is too broadly set to consider the very local factors which really should inform Planning decisions and this has been only too painfully apparent not only to Villages within my Ward, but to the wider Tewkesbury area since the July 2007 Flooding Event. This itself was perhaps the perfect example of why local people should be making locally informed and constructed decisions about local Planning issues, without the fear of overruling from the Secretary of State.

Licensing presents different, but nonetheless equally frustrating challenges which again restrict the ability of locally Elected Councillors to really deliver decisions and solutions which are based completely on that locality and the local evidence which it provides, rather than relying upon a centrally-led Legislative Policy which doesn’t provide anywhere near the flexibility and level of responsibility that those Elected to do the job should actually have.

The 2003 Licensing Act brought the Licensing Authority function within the fold of District Councils and away from Magistrates Courts. There is a lot to be said in favour of this specialist area being dealt with by trained Councillors on dedicated Sub-Committee panels which are of a similar format to a Magistrates Bench. However, the benefits are lost by the right of Appeal being automatically passed back to the Magistrates Court, where one might respectfully suggest that the trivialities of cases such as a Licensing Hours extension for a Town boozer or that of a Private Hire Drivers License for an unemployed jobseeker with 6 or more points on his or her Driving License will be seen to do no more than take up unnecessary time that could be spent more effectively elsewhere.

Real parity in both Licensing and Planning could be achieved by developing this type of system further to allow both functions to use the Sub-Committee panel system, but by also restricting and focussing the right of appeal so that the system cannot be left open to the potential misuse and manipulation of specialist advisors who know exactly what approach and to what level they need to take a case in order to achieve the result that their client wants, which may well not be in the interests of the wider population.

We have heard David Cameron talk a lot about Locality and giving power back to local people. I’m afraid that to date it has looked all too much to me like the age old story of taking back with one hand what the Government and Ministers such as Eric Pickles have given with the other and people just aren’t as stupid as such actions would suggest some Ministers think.

If the Coalition Government really wants to empower local people, there are many ways that they could do so and reform of the decision making processes and guidelines for both Planning and Licensing Law allowing local factors to be prioritised would be a significant start.

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