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Councillors need training to avert risk of allegations of ‘bribery and corruption’ in planning decision making

POOR management, overworked staff and a shortage of technical expertise contributed to low morale in Carmarthenshire Council’s planning department, a review found.

The review also said that some councillors were, according to a planning consultancy, “readily accessible” and “happy to discuss individual cases”.

This was deemed “inappropriate behaviour” by the company which carried it out, Sustainable Works Ltd. It said that members of the public wishing to comment or discuss a planning matter should instead approach the relevant planning officer.

The review was written in January 2020 but has not been made public, although it has been referenced in council meetings.

The council forwarded an executive summary of it to the Local Democracy Reporter Service following a Freedom of Information request, and said a number of improvements have now been made.

The executive summary said the planning department had faced several reviews since 2014 but often failed to fully implement recommendations.

It said planning officers appeared to be loyal and hard-working, and wanted to see improvements. But they “displayed considerable unhappiness”, with concerns about work overload, a large backlog of cases, and a lack of good management.

The review said: “Staff are concerned at the situation they find themselves in, some are trying to find ways of working round the issues, some are leaving and some clearly need support.”

It also said planning officers did not fully understand the council’s wider regeneration and environmental ambitions, and needed more technical expertise in areas such as ecology, drainage and flood management.

The review outlined the risks of not taking action to improve performance, including the potential of allegations being levelled against councillors.

“This review found evidence of members potentially being inappropriately involved in planning decision-making, it is vital that training of all members (councillors) is given with more in-depth training for planning committee members since there is a risk of inappropriate decision-making and risk of allegations of bribery or corruption,” it said.

The review made 50 recommendations, but a separate review of the planning service by Audit Wales this year said the council had not prioritised them.

The authority did set up a strategic working group immediately after the January 2020 report, but its work was suspended when the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020.

The council has now outlined a range of measures it has been taking to address the two reviews.

These include the creation of a special intervention board, chaired by the new interim head of planning.

A hub has also been set up where staff take some planning service phone calls, allowing officers to focus better on their case work.

This has led to a large backlog of applications – some dating back more than five years – coming down. Outstanding enforcement cases, which at one point reached 955, are also decreasing.

More applications are also being determined within the normal eight-week period.

The council forwarded the improvements to the Local Democracy Reporter Service in a document which has been shared among councillors.

It said the new hub “has been without doubt the biggest intervention made and the performance reflects its impact”.

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