Planners at the centre of a battle over a number of major wind farm applications have come under fire in an official inspection.
The Audit Commission’s inspection of Berwick Borough Council says that, overall, the council is improving after being judged “weak” four years ago, but that improvements in its development control service are insufficient to meet Government targets.
The report follows criticism of the council’s method of paying consultants to prepare reports on plans, notably three wind farm proposals which had been with the authority for up to three and a half years.
Planners recommended that two of the three applications at Toft Hill, Moorsyde and Barmoor be approved, but councillors last month voted against all of the applications.
The Audit Commission report says: “The speed at which plans are determined is improving but overall the service is not reaching Government targets. The planning service improved the time taken to process applications in 2006/07 and in the first half of this year, but it is still unable to meet government targets.
“The service is struggling to deal with a legacy of more complex major applications and none of these are currently being processed within government target times. Applicant satisfaction with the service is low.”
Audit Commission inspectors say that staff turnover is high. The structure of the planning department is described as “inappropriate”.
The audit calls on the authority to ensure the proper management of services until they are transferred to Northumberland’s new unitary council next year.
A spokesman for Berwick Council said: “We welcome the findings of the auditors who recognise that the council has improved over the last 12 months. 57% of our performance indicators have gone up and although planning is not meeting government targets we are working hard to ensure that services improve.”
Last night a spokesman for the Moorsyde Action Group, which fought against an application for a wind farm in the area, said: “I’m not surprised by this at all. There were loads of problems during the wind farm inquiry. Morale amongst council staff seemed to be incredibly low.”
By Brian Daniel
21 April 2008
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