Uttlesford district council’s historic decision to overturn its own planning permission for a rise in passenger numbers at Stansted Airport could presage a collective meltdown at the London Road offices in Saffron Walden.

Throughout Friday’s meeting, gremlins in the Wifi system meant the most important planning meeting in over a decade was neither broadcast live nor recorded. The embarrassing technological glitch is symbolic of a council that is careering to towards the brink.

Uttlesford’s Malaise as Officials Feel the Strain

Council officers are having to adjust to a different set of priorities and added expectations. The new Residents for Uttlesford administration has kicked over all the furniture to stamp its identity on the council – even the constitution is being overhauled, although the direction of change is still unclear.

Confusion has been generated by a bloated cabinet with vague, overlapping portfolios that go well beyond the council’s remit. The local plan – years in the making – has collapsed, leading to a policy vacuum that will be exploited by developers. Resources are over-stretched under the weight of central government austerity and increased responsibility, not helped by having to organise three major elections in succession last year – the local, European Parliament and general elections. The corporate plan – which sets out the council’s vision and strategy for the next few years – is still in limbo after Scrutiny Committee chair Cllr Neil Gregory claimed the draft offered “a little light and on the face of it motherhood and apple pie statements of warm gold deeds.” Around a third of committee meetings ended up cancelled in the last quarter of 2019 with no explanation. It appears from the outside that the council is stumbling.

On the other hand, some councillors are also frustrated by the past “tail wagging the dog” culture with the feeling that officers have not been challenged sufficiently over their judgements.

A spat picked up on microphones between the planning chair and a planning official back in March 2018 indicated that relations were already under strain even before R4U won control. The official told the then-chair Cllr Alan Mills that he would encourage the developer Persimmon to go for costs against the council – potentially up to £100,000 – after councillors ignored advice to approve the construction of 36 houses next to Henham and Ugley Primary School.

The outburst was a stunning sign of officials’ anger at planning decisions taken against their advice, but indicates a deeper, long-standing malaise within the council that predates the change of administration.

Tensions between councillors and officials prompted the chief executive to lament the erosion of trust within the council. CEO Dawn French made a blistering remark at a scrutiny committee in September last year when she said: “I have worked for a number of authorities and I think the trust that members have in the officers here is not as good, not at the same standards as I have enjoyed elsewhere and I think it isn’t at the same standard as has been historically the case, which is a regret.”

Council leader Cllr John Lodge responded to Ms French’s anxieties, saying he was “really pleased with the co-operation I am seeing with officers” and that the situation “will resolve itself and I am committed to make sure that it does.”

However, the past few weeks suggest the gulf between councillors and officials is widening. The administration chose to ignore officers’ advice on Stansted Airport and then ignored the independent legal and technical advice they hired – at a cost of £100,000 to tax-payers – which supported the officers’ conclusions.

Seemingly adding insult to injury, political leaders are now basking in the glory being vindicated by government inspectors who rejected the local plan, devised by planning officers.

I cannot imagine the deepening sense of despondency that has set in among planning officials while the politicians gloat. A toxic, dysfunctional working relationship between councillors and officials would do the district no service.

Austerity Forces Officials into Amateur Investment Management

The problems of over-stretched human resources go beyond planning. The finance department is taking on a new role as a property investor, borrowing tens of millions of pounds to scoop up real estate in a panicked bid to earn some rental income that will replace the loss of central government funding from 2021.

Officer time is increasingly spent on property speculation, which is not part of the remit or skillset of local government finance officials. The lessons of the collapse of Landsbanki, the Icelandic bank in which Uttlesford invested £2.2mn, appear to have been forgotten. Officers are again being directed by councillors to play the role of amateur investment bankers while an “investment board” of councillors reviews decisions and cobbles together a strategy with no training or independent professional advice.

In 2018/19, officer time spent on its real estate subsidiary Aspire totalled £65,000, an increase of 91% over the previous year, according to Companies House filings. While officials’ time was refunded to the council by Aspire, the amount of work spent on managing a growing real estate portfolio is diverting senior officer attention from the job they were originally appointed to do. The council officers who serve on Aspire’s board of directors are local government public servants, not commercial asset management professionals. The time officers are spending on Aspire business is time they are not spending dealing with the council’s financial challenges, which will get worse as it approaches the 2021 financial crunch.

The salary of a commercial asset manager to manage an entire local authority portfolio is typically in the £50,000-60,000 range. It’s more cost-effective and efficient to employ a new officer than drain the time of other officers, particularly if there are more acquisitions.

Councillors should refresh and reunify the corporate body and consider significant investment in human capital – more training and more staff – to forge a water-tight local plan and keep the council well-run. Proper scrutiny does not entail casting doubt on the professional integrity of officials who are paid for their expertise and seek to carry out the wishes of a democratic body. It is simply demoralising and undermines important relationships.

Beware the Voters’ Verdict

As for the Stansted Airport application, it may be some time before we know whether this will be a winnable David versus Goliath battle or a bad judgement call that costs us six or seven figure sums. The ultimate judgement will be made in the courts.

Regardless of what we think of officers’ advice, the original decision on Stansted airport was ultimately a political one – the November 2018 planning committee meeting in which Tory councillors nodded through the planning application on the casting vote of the chair with barely a question asked.

All those who voted for the application are no longer councillors, either because they read the writing on the wall or they were sacked by the electorate. The only Tory councillor left who was part of this committee is Mark Lemon, the Hatfield Heath representative who was the sole member of his party to oppose the application. This is a reminder that the ultimate judgement call comes from the voters.

Financial risks arising from a failed local plan, a costly court appeal by Manchester Airport Group, local planning controversies arising from the planning policy vacuum, and possible losses in the real estate portfolio could combine into one enormous Northhants-style omnishambles.

Voters will not be forgiving if Uttlesford is plunged into financial and political crisis.