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No cover-up over plans destruction

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THERE is no evidence of any criminal intent, nor of any determined “cover-up” arising from the unlawful destruction of planning records at Warrington Borough Council.
Rather there was a “muddle headed and misguided” attempt to save the council money.
These are the conclusions of barrister Eric Owen, who has carried out an independent review of the circumstances into the Local Government Ombudsman’s ruling that the council had been guilty of maladministration arising from the destruction of the records.
His report reveals that former assistant planning director John Earle has admitted taking the decision to destroy planning documents to save storage space.
He has subsequently said the decision was “regrettable” but pointed out that it was taken at a time of budgetry constraint when the council was facing a demand for a commercial rent for storage space used for planning documents.
Mr Earle, who retired from the council in 2007, said he had sifted through documents to find those he considered uncontroversial – mainly home extensions.
He identified documents his considered, from his experience to be important for the future.
He did not destroy any less than 10-years-old.
Alan Stephenson, former strategic director for the environment, who also retired in 2007, said he had been aware of the council’s need to avoid commercial rent costs for storage space but did not recall any formal decision by the management team to destroy documents.
He would not have expected to be informed.
Neither Mr Earle nor Mr Stephenson appeared before the formal hearing held by Mr Owen, but made statements.
Mr Owen said he was satisfied no councillors were aware that planning documents were being destroyed. He particularly praised Cllr Brian Axcell, who was executive member for environment at the time, for his attention to detail which had greatly assisted his review.
The review reveals that John Groves, then a senior planner, became aware of the decision to destroy documents and had his reservations. But he decided to remain silent.
Mr Owen suggests the council should ensure all employees are aware of the “whistle blowing” procedure.
Dennis Cooper, then head of the council’s legal service, made reasonable and proper requests for information about the destruction of records. But he was treated in a “high handed and dismissive way” by the planning department and was now entitled to an apology.
Mr Owen said he agreed with the Ombudsman’s conclusion the destruction of planning records was an extraordinary and inexcusable act of maladministration by the council.
Authorities had had a statutory duty to hold such records since 1947 and he agreed with the Ombudsman that this represented a significant and very serious failure of corporate governance.
However, the fact the council had instigated the investigation showed how seriously they viewed the matter.
Professor Steven Broomhead (pictured), the council’s interim chief executive, said: “The recommendations from the original Ombudsman report have been implemented in full, and the council took the finding of maladministration extremely seriously and committed to take all appropriate actions.
“A barrister conducted a thorough and entirely independent review of the process and the council has published his report and the evidence he gathered on its website to give everyone access to his findings.
“The Audit and Corporate Governance Committee considered the report very carefully. We will look closely at the lessons that can be learned, ensure that recommendations are acted upon, improvements are implemented, and that the process is handled with total transparency so that people can have total confidence in the business processes of the council.”

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3 Comments

  1. From what I have read, this inquiry stopped enquiring at the point when the documents got destroyed in 2006.Other funny stuff happened to more documents after that stop off point but were not looked at, why not if it was to do with documents it might be as important? Information from internal auditors say not only Mr Earle and Mr Stephenson knew documents had been destroyed, but so did three principal planners still employed by the Council.As this report says one of them admitted “he knew about the destruction had his reservations but he decided to remain silent.” The inquiry report does not comment on what the two other senior planners felt or did did. It seems they were not asked to the inquiry, why not? I ask because Mr Earle, Mr Stephenson and the three principal planners all decided to remain silent from 2006 until 2010, when the Ombudsman found them out. It my be strictly true to say no cover up over plans destruction could be found in this inquiry because it stopped enquiring into stuff after 2006. But I don’t know how else the silence over the destruction for five years by those five silent people could be described other than a cover-up? Unless you want to call a whitewash, concealment, deception suppression or whatever, they all decided to remain schtum to keep it quiet. I go with the view councillors were not aware that planning documents were being destroyed. It was kept from them as well. Like or loathe them they put themselvesin the firing line to serve the community and take all the flak, including that which should really be fired at those advising them. So it seems they had no part in the cover-up, or whatever you choose to call it.

  2. I agree Matt, but I think it is worth noting that both the ombudsman’s report and this inquiry both reported that far from remaining silent, existing employees of the planning department misled councillors and the people involved in the Marton Close affair that brought this out in the open. It’s clearly a cover up in my opinion and yet there has been no attempt to ask the three employees why they chose to keep silent and/or mislead councillors and the public. I doubt we’ll ever know, but this inquiry has added little to what was already in the public domain so leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Because of that I think there is little chance that the planning department has restored whatever reputation it had.

  3. Trying to put the lid on this issue with meaningless assurances of learning lessons and putting the corporate best foot forward from now on, with so many questions remaining unanswered is not the way to restore public confidence. It will leave us the people of Warrington back where we started with a Council let alone a planning department which continues to operate with its integrity still being questioned. I believe that would be a pity.

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