"No cover-up over plans destruction"
- Published 02/07/12 7:00 am
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."