Tuesday 10 August 2021

Audit Wales report - Carmarthenshire's Planning Service in meltdown

As anticipated on my previous post, the Audit Wales report into the council's planning services has now been published.

It is a damning report and it is clear that the planning department is in total meltdown; "Significant and long-standing performance issues in the planning service need to be urgently addressed" 
As usual, these reports are 'politely' written, but it doesn't take much to read between the lines, not with this one.

The external consultants report, as also mentioned in the previous post, was commissioned by the council themselves and completed in December 2019. 

It has never been mentioned in any committee, let alone ever made publicly available, despite making no less than FIFTY recommendations for improvement - this current Audit Wales report notes that the council, apart from dithering about with a customary 'Action Plan', has failed to improve on any of them.
What a waste of money that was.

What is also clear is that the blame lies with the corporate management and executive councillors. 

We understand that following the Audit Wales report, the head of planning, Llinos Quelch left the council...'for personal reasons'. However the chief executives (present and former) and the Director of Environment, Ruth Mullen (£130k+ per year) are also, and ultimately, responsible. 

Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole, and his Executive Board, have failed miserably to keep an eye on the planning service and ignored the systematic failings. They've continually let senior management off the hook, causing catastrophic damage to the department and public confidence.  What a shambles.

Of course it must be remembered that not so long ago Emlyn was embroiled in his very own planning scandal, emerging unscathed with the able assistance of Mark James, a favour for which he was duty bound to return...

For years the council has been seeking empty headlines with their various and vacuous 'ambitious regeneration programmes' whilst not even having a properly functioning planning department to actually deliver it.

This systematic failure was all under Mark James' watch. Sadly and as we all know, he was more concerned with his own wallet, his ego, and, it turns out, accepting bribes, than a functioning, decent council.

It's also clear from the report that the massive backlog (847 planning applications and 761 enforcement cases as of March 2021) is impacting on the regeneration visions, and vice versa, the time spent on 'strategic visions' is making the backlog pile up to an unmanageable scale.

The report notes that the council has no plan to deal with the backlog, some of which go back over five years. 
The council is also misrepresenting it's data for the time taken to determine applications, Audit Wales points out that "performance may potentially be worse than currently recorded and reported".

It also notes that every year there's a massive overspend, in 2019/20 it was £512,000.

The planning department is also unable to manage the growing backlog and increasing number of enforcement cases. This is leading to more retrospective planning applications, a failure to follow planning policy and a loss of confidence from the public in the service altogether. Nothing new there mind you.

Remarkably, "Delivering effective planning enforcement" was quietly removed from the Council's Risk Register in September 2020. 
I suppose if you delete the problem it no longer exists...

The report notes a total lack of transparency on any attempts by the council to act on recommendations or improve the service, possibly because it hasn't. It certainly hasn't been transparent over the external consultants report, nor this one. 
It is also noted that the planning division has not been transparent, nor shared information, about complaints. Significantly it has also failed to respond to complaints; the public have had to resort to contacting their local councillors. 
And who knew they were passing on swathes of planning applications to a private sector company to deal with? No one.

All this indicates a failure of a critical system, a system which is fundamental to economic recovery, addressing climate change, and of course to the public. It also leaves a system open to abuse. Failure to 'perform' is a failure to function.

Let's hope that this report doesn't find itself in the County Hall long grass, out to pasture for a couple of years in a dreaded 'Task and finish group'. It must be debated at full council without delay.

As the title of this blog suggests,(it expanded its interests a long time ago but the title stuck) there have been historic problems with Carmarthenshire's Planning Department for many years, and not necessarily related to 'performance' per se....there have been countless questionable decisions, some very curious behaviour from the planning committee and senseless council planning decisions pushed through regardless of  public opinion or the environment, let alone actual policy.

As with the rest of the Mark James hangers-on still in the top brass, Rees-Jones, Wendy Walters, Chris Moore etc, it's about time there was a clean sweep of the upper echelons in this department too. 
Sack 'em all.
It might just get somewhere then.

The report can be found on the Audit Wales website.  It should come as no surprise that there's no link on the council's website.


Anonymous said...

Who were the private sector company please?

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:59
I asked the chief executive that very question this morning, and for the name of the external consultants who did the December 2019 report. I have also asked how much both these exercises have cost.
My email was immediately treated as a FOI request so we now have to wait several weeks for a reply.
Not surprised that the costs would be referred to FOI, gives them time for the dust to settle and I should've expected it, but certainly not the names of the companies, so I've asked again.

Robin said...

I have requested the clerk of my Town Council for a debate of the Audit Office report at their next meeting and my County Councillors to do likewise.
Robin Burn

Keanjo said...

Don’t recall Dyfed having this sort of trouble .What has happened?

Anonymous said...

in a previous response to a blog I mentioned an undiscovered scandal - might this be it ?

I hope the recently departed head of planning was not the scarifical lamb when most of this stuff has been around for years possibly decades

Two names come to mind Dave Gilbert and Efion Bowen

Anonymous said...

It seems that councillors and officials keep each other sweet. One questions if the development carried out by the leader of council was investigated or did all concern turn a blind eye to it.
Another case was a controversial wind turbine planning application in Llansteffan overlooking Laugharne. The local county councillor declared that he knew the applicant and would step back stating that he had a vested interest. Yet he was present at the site meeting and spoke in favour of the application when it was brought before the planning committee.

caebrwyn said...

Apparently Noelwyn Daniel, the council's Head of ICT has been made interim Head of Planning after Llinos Quelch's departure.

I had no response from County Hall concerning the identity of the private sector companies, will have to wait for FOI.

Redhead said...

Maybe check the council's invoices paid over £500 if Wales councils have to publish them monthly as in England.

caebrwyn said...

Unfortunately it is different in Wales, there's no requirement to publish spending details at all. And Carmarthenshire makes the most of this anomaly, it's FOI or nothing

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the Council lead authority are making scape goats out of officers. As you have indicated there were issues with the planning department prior to 2015. Unsurprisingly the Executive Board / Cabinet Member Councillor Mair Stephens responsible for planning has been unusaully quiet about the situation. Same for Cllr Philip Hughes (Enforcement).

How much the ex Head of IT will bring to the party now that the delayed implementation of a new IT system for the Planning department has been completed remains to be seen. Maybe it is a case of jobs for the boys again....

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 01:55
The Executive councillors do nothing more than read out reports cobbled together by senior officers, and nod them through like dim-witted puppets. This is the system perfected by Mark James to ensure he could do what he liked, no questions asked. That legacy continues and Mair Stephens is a perfect example, thick as mince and getting paid £35,320 a year for the privilege.
The corporate management are responsible for the mess.

And I agree, as the report states, the new Arcus IT system has taken FIVE years to put in place, and it's still not functioning properly. So indeed, one wonders what exactly the Head of IT can usefully offer...

Anonymous said...

for those that take an interest in the local authority this is another in a long line of bad reports by audit

planning is one service everyone associates with the council - bad report
grants thru regeneration is another favourite function of the council - bad report on a yearly basis
regeneration on a region basis working with other councils is encouraged by the Wales Govt - Swansea City Region - when Carmarthenshire was in charge - bad report

Collecting rubbish is another Council function - this seems to work with bags collected on the designated day - well done binmen

caebrwyn said...

Anon 14:50
Indeed. I've blogged about countless bad audit reports over the years, internal and external.
One, of course, was the notorious Public Interest Report from Audit Wales in 2014.
There were two City Deal reports, one internal governance report led by Pembrokeshire Council and the other by Actica Consulting on behalf of the UK and Welsh Governments. Both were damning indictments of the 'leadership' of Mark James as well as the role of Carmarthenshire Council. I wrote numerous blog posts about it all, including here
Mark James, as we know, had his own agenda for the City Deal...an agenda which involved filling his own pockets.

Anonymous said...

How badly run does a Council need to be before changes happen

Is it those who can bother to vote
Is it those in the Wales Govt
Is it the opposition

Can a Council be put into special measures as many of the other institutions in Wales have been ?

Sian Caiach said...

In the case of South Carmarthenshire the recent climate central update on sea level rise should be a final goodbye to the County council's efforts both on the development of the old Grillo site at Bury Port and the Wellness /Pentre Awel plans for Delta lakes in Llanelli.
If areas are likely to be overwhelmed by the sea within 30 years or less, personally I would nor wish to waste money on them. Surely the County council will find higher ground for future projects?