We are paying for shambles
Three topics dominated discussion when South Hams Council met at Follaton House recently.
The proposed 3.5 per cent increase in council tax, the planned increase in members' allowances, along with the previously reported problems with the development management service, all attracted comment.
Taking the last of the three first, Cllr John Carter, the executive member for planning, economy and community, finally gave his long-promised report as to why Marion Playle, the officer responsible for that function, had previously felt it necessary to apologise to councillors for the poor performance of the planning department.
Having begun by somewhat surprisingly referring to Ms Playle as 'my boss', Cllr Carter then proceeded to give the distinct impression of a man not on top of his brief, but one subsumed by it.
As Cllr Julian Brazil subsequently noted, he omitted to explain at what stage he realised there was a problem, what action he had taken when he became aware, and what he was now doing to ensure the same problem would not re-occur in the future.
The problem, it transpired, was that an unacceptable backlog had built up in the department and, according to Cllr Keith Baldry, the executive member, namely Cllr Carter, should have known about the problem much earlier.
Be that as it may, it appears the response of the council has been to employ as many as six outside staff on temporary contracts to reduce, but not yet eliminate, the backlog. Whether those staff had or now have sufficient local knowledge to fully understand the finer niceties of the challenges facing planners in the South Hams could be open to question.
What is not is the cost. The Total Jobs website states planning officers currently earn an annual average of £37,500. Even were South Hams to be paying less, over the year the cost could well be £180,000, and possibly more.
And it is here where the increases in both members' allowances and council tax merit mention. Once again, Cllrs Baldry and Brazil were keen to condemn both.
However, only a cynic would suggest their desire to do so was in any way motivated by the presence of a reporter from the Totnes Times, the Gazette's sister paper, and the imminent county council election.
More to the point, the proposed 3.5 per cent increase in council tax is likely to raise around £170,000.
In other words, had the problems with the development management service not been allowed to arise, and had those temporary staff not been employed, and had councillors not decided to have a pay rise at our expense, it is possible no increase in council tax would now be necessary.
Cllr Tucker, the leader of the council, might like to tell us what the actual cost already incurred in employing those staff has been, and what the ongoing cost is likely to be.
But regardless of the final numbers, the only certainty is that it won't be Cllr Carter or Ms Playle paying for this shambles, but residents in the South Hams.
l Editor's note: The Gazette copied the contents of this letter to South Hams Council for a reponse to Mr Howell's claims. The council replied: 'Mr Howell is entitled to his opinions, erroneous or otherwise.'
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