Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


Memorandum by the House Builders Federation

  The House Builders Federation is the trade association which represents private house builders in England and Wales. Our members account for over 70 per cent of the new homes built each year. House builders are one of the main regular private sector consumers of planning and other local government services.


  It is essential that local government is able to interact with its stakeholders in a way that enables the local community to improve. The Government has placed welcome emphasis on the need for local government to engage with the private sector, both in terms of forging partnerships and also in terms of delivering efficient, quality services.

  Whilst some local authorities are trying very hard to embrace the agenda of Best Value and better corporate governance, too many councils still exhibit a culture of inefficiency and obstructionism. Many local authorities simply do not have enough quality in their decision making. This manifests itself in, for example, an unwillingness to see communication with stakeholders as a legitimate aspect of the work of a local authority. We have recently initiated a programme of meetings across the country to enable senior councillors, officers and senior management of local house builders to discuss Best Value as it relates to planning. Although many authorities have been very positive, and an encouraging dialogue has often resulted, a disappointing number of planning officers have made clear that they are simply not prepared to discuss this important issue.

  Local Leadership, Local Choice rightly says in para 1.13 that there is a lack of clarity about where decisions are taken and by whom. The role of the council's officers to provide professional advice to the decision takers is clouded. People do not know who to praise, who to blame, or who to contact with their problems. There should be more empowerment of, and delegation to, professional officers, meaning that committees or cabinets take genuinely strategic decisions, overseeing the quality, consistency and effectiveness of delegated decisions.

  Too much local government is process driven and does not spend enough time considering outcomes. Partly this is a consequence of problems of resources; partly it results from a culture of remoteness. The new local government structures should facilitate and encourage strategic debate with stakeholders as to the direction of policy and the outcomes which are best for the community. Poor quality ad hoc decision making reduces the publics confidence in local government.


  House builders are one of the main stakeholders in the local government planning system. One of the most pressing manifestations of the organisational difficulties in local authorities encountered by house builders is the failure of council departments to communicate with each other and the lack of a clear line of responsibility for decision making. For example, a developer may negotiate with a planning department a Section 106 agreement, which will mean a contribution to the benefit of the community say a village hall, or part funding of improvements to a local school. In a large number of authorities, these agreements take far too long to draft and finalise. Once they leave the planning team, they become bogged down in a bureaucratic, under resourced and often unresponsive legal department, or alternatively highways, or education. In such cases, nobody seems to own the process, and nobody is really accountable for the outcome. Furthermore, councillors need to have the right information in order to make decisions at committee. Too often, applications reach the committee stage without this happening because council planning officers are not empowered to see applications through from start to finish. They should be on hand at all stages of the process to help councillors, the applicant, and the public and to enable an informed debate, but all too often this professional role is undermined by lack of resources or lack of support from elected members.


  Any creation of cabinet style government on elected mayors should aim to improve the process of engagement with stakeholders. Those key elected members who fulfil these roles must be genuinely accessible and accountable, and the process by which decisions are made must be transparent. It is vital that planning, a highly sensitive issue, is open to scrutiny, not just in retrospect, but as decisions are taken. Too much power must not be vested in a small group of individuals who are not sufficiently open to question.

  For this reason, in accordance with the Governments intention stated in paragraphs 3.10 and 3.23 of the White Paper, it is important that the Secretary of State should issue regulations ensuring that planning decisions should fall under clause 3(1)(a) and not be the subject of executive arrangements.

June 1999

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