It is perhaps timely to introduce new readers to – and remind old readers of – Tremellen’s First Law of Fundamental Errors.
It has to do with disappointment being directly proportional to the level of expectation.
The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when that expectation isn’t met.
Forgetting or ignoring that Basic Rule of the Bleedin’ Obvious is the error.
When it comes to applying the First Law to local government it has to do with expecting joined-up thinking, the original working hypothesis having indeed proved so workable in practice that it developed into the dependable theory that became The First Law.
I came into local government expecting integrity, openness and honesty; joined-up thinking unsullied by the political ideologies that drive national politics, or the arrogance of the self-serving individuals so often portrayed in television dramas (or more usually comedies) featuring characters out for whatever is in it for themselves and their cronies.
In my first few months I was confounded by the lack of joined-up thinking apparent in some of the decisions I saw being made, presumably based on established policies and practices because they were voted through and passed into the system without effective challenge from a salaried Executive Branch that appeared to have lost its professional scepticism.
Then it dawned on me that the “policies and practices” were either unwritten or, if available in printed form, worded in a way that allowed interpretation that cast doubt on what I had always taken to be the meaning of the words used. The watchword was deniability.
Of joined-up thinking was there none because what WAS there followed an agenda that had a beginning and an end but nothing in between. Think Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Sleight of hand (and tongue) and the liberal definition of words that took semantics into the higher realms of deniability was the norm, long-established and therefore deep-rooted – it had been perfected to the nth degree.
A lot of people wondered then what my problem was and why, after four years, it’s still there – both the problem and my problem with it! That wonderment says it all, for me anyway. What’s to wonder about? It’s simple, it’s wrong. It’s doubly-wrong because it’s creepy.
It is silent-running through the very fabric of governance and as long as it doesn’t ripple the waters or, god forbid, break the surface it is allowed to continue running deep and silent.
I had it in the answer I got to my question to Full Council on the 14th December last (2017).
My question was straightforward:
COUNCILLOR DAVE TREMELLEN will ask the following question to the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Regulatory Services:
As the Planning Task & Finish Group chaired by Councillor Steve Davenport appears to have been abandoned, would the portfolio holder with responsibility for Planning confirm what the situation is regarding its current status?
And if it is the case that Council Leader Peter Nutting’s declaration to Full Council of his intention to retain three planning committees has, indeed, led to that Task & Finish Group being abandoned, given that we have been led to believe by earlier Planning Task & Finish Groups that the cost of a decision by committee is eight times that of an officer-delegated decision, could either the portfolio holder responsible for planning or Councillor Nutting himself justify that decision by providing Council with the calculations on which that decision was based?
The answer was anything but straightforward:
COUNCILLOR ROBERT MACEY the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Regulatory Services will reply: The delivery of an effective and efficient Planning Service across Shropshire is central to the delivery of economic growth, one of the Council’s key objectives.
Planning will always be a service that generates a lot of interest – from the development sector, from communities as well as key stakeholders and the role of planning is to mediate interests that sometimes conflict with one another to facilitate sustainable outcomes. Most applications for planning permission in Shropshire are ultimately granted, whether by Planning Committee or those delegated to officers for consideration.
Given the importance of and interest in the planning process Members have convened through recent task and finish groups, to look at planning processes, performance and committees. Our key challenge has been in delivering processes efficiently and consistently across the large rural geography of Shropshire. The cost of service delivery is of course a relevant factor and an application reported to Committee will inevitably cost more to process than an item delegated to officers for consideration. In terms of costs it is perhaps more important to recognise that planning performance is dependent not only on the planning team, but also on the resource and capacity of internal and external consultees to the process. Failure at any point in the process can contribute to delays and uncertainty which does not benefit the applicant or those with an interest in a planning application. This was a key point endorsed by the last Task & Finish group in a report presented to Enterprise & Growth Scrutiny on 23rd March this year.
Planning is a service area where there may be perceptions about performance, quality or process arising of the different and potentially conflicting sector interests highlighted earlier. It is for this reason I have previously reported to Council some headline and generally very positive performance figures to provide the facts of the matter.
In terms of the number and delivery of planning committees this remains an option for the Council to revisit in the future and this was also endorsed by the task and finish group in March. Again I suggest that if changes are made to the number of planning committees or how these function in practice, that this assessment should be informed by evidence and what works best for Shropshire rather than by perception or speculation.
Can you see an answer to my direct question? Nor me.
The convention is for the Speaker of The Council to ask the Member if they have a supplementary question for the portfolio holder, to which I replied:
Given the portfolio holder’s failure to answer the actual question he was asked, the only supplementary question available to me to ask is what part of that question didn’t he understand?
Well, that raised a laugh at least.