Horsham District Council is the worst performing council in the country when it comes to handling large development applications according to a recent report.
Instead of handling 30 per cent in the maximum permitted time it has managed just 18 per cent. It is one of only seven failing councils. As a result the government might remove local control over what is built. This could lead to even greater loss of green fields and to many more expensive houses being built instead of homes that local people can afford.
Horsham’s Liberal Democrat councillors totally agree with the WSCT that the council must consider developers applications carefully and negotiate solutions that are acceptable. But we should not be the worst in the country at doing it.
This situation is the direct result of an ill-conceived restructure in 2009. In a letter to WSCT on 16th February 2009, we warned that it would ‘create a structure that many believe would be incapable of functioning effectively’. We warned against losing experienced people; ‘the heads of Planning, Legal and Personnel’. We recommended instead the Mole Valley District Council approach that similarly reduced the number of departments but, in their words, recognised the need to ‘retain as much organisational knowledge as we could’. Mole Valley maintained a separate planning department with its own head of service. Instead Horsham combined planning, environmental health and licensing, and ceased having an experienced planner as head of planning and responsible to a director.
The council has got to get its act together. Planning has been a mess ever since 2009. Because the council cannot demonstrate that sufficient homes to meet local need will be built over the next five years it is already difficult to stop developers building wherever they wish. The decision about where to build over the next 20 years was put on hold in October 2012 causing a further nine month delay.
The council lacks experienced staff in many key areas and overall does not have the staff it needs. A report to council on June 26 shows, last year 16.8 per cent of posts were vacant and took on average five months to fill. The result, seven per cent of all posts were empty at any one time.
A further restructure is now planned, together with consideration of contracting out much of what the council does. When the last restructure was agreed on February 11 2009 the then leader Liz Kitchen indicated at the end of the meeting that if the restructure does harm the council in the way that many fear, those who proposed it must pay the price.
I do not see anyone paying the price apart from the residents of the district. The quality of management, including the management of planning, has got to be improved and any further changes to how the local authority operates have got to be sound and sensible.
Dr David Holmes
(LDem) Horsham district councillor for Horsham Park ward, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Horsham District Council