Sunday, April 30, 2006

Governance and misgovernance, those are the issues being pondered by many UK citizens at the moment, especially as affecting local government and local bureaucracy, and especially where the office of Local Government Ombudsman is involved. See the website LGOWatch, and the online discussions on the forum.

It is clear that dozens and dozens of individuals in England and Wales are dissatisfied with the way the system currently works. It does not appear to be of much use in rooting out bad practice. It does not appear to be delivering justice to individual complainants. Nor does it appear to be able to deliver justice in a broader context when, as often occurs, powerful vested interests come into conflict with local, national and European policies that are designed for the protection of the public interest.

The following case suggests that the state of UK governance leaves much to be desired.

In 1985 Ynys Mon (Anglesey) Council turned down an application from the Ministry of Defence to construct a leisure development on a disused MOD site at Ty Croes, on the grounds that it would be inappropriate within a designated AONB. But in 1992, ignoring local objections and the advice of its own Environmental Health officer, the Council granted permission for a much more controversial development to take place, namely a motor racing track - with the attendant noise and disruption. No records were kept of the meeting, there was no environmental assessment, and the Council members involved either have no recollection of what transpired or do not wish to talk about it. Nonetheless Arthur Owen, the Council’s Planning Officer, has all along maintained, and still maintains, that "the correct decision was made."
Complaints about noise nuisance were soon forthcoming from the owner occupiers of houses living in close proximity to the track. Those houses had originally been built by the MOD, but were then refurbished by a private developer, to whom the race track promoters (Bodorgan estates) had sold them, declaring that adjoining land would be returned to agricultural use. Bodorgan estates subsequently obtained a large land reclamation grant from the WDA on the understanding that the land would be returned to agriculture. The grant was used to clear the site for a motor racing track, but the NAO did not insist on a clawback of funding.
The help of the Local Commissioner (Wales) - or Welsh Ombudsman - was sought. Initially he was willing to investigate the problem of noise nuisance at the track, but not the original planning decision. After some remonstration, he accepted that it would be absurd to try and address the question of noise nuisance without addressing the planning decision that had authorised an inherently noisy development. His lengthy report of 1998 found maladministration on a number of counts; clearly the track would not have come into existence had the correct procedures been followed. He concluded by suggesting to the local Council one of three options - 1. prosecution for breaches of conditions, 2. closing the track down, or 3. paying one of the complainants a sum of money by way of compensation. Not surprisingly, the Council decided to opt for no. 3. Expectations that an official finding of maladministration would somehow limit or reverse the wrongdoing were quickly dashed. The Council's Planning Officer considered that the adverse Ombudsman's report was in any case "only a matter of opinion." Although the noise nuisance continued unabated, and largely unmonitored, the Ombudsman declared himself functus officio and would do no more: his remit is exclusively and narrowly to get rogue Councils to disburse small sums of money to individual complainants, the broader public interest and effective protection of the environment from inappropriate development being rigorously excluded from consideration.
The current situation is curious. While not denying that there has been (and is) breach of statutory duty by the local Council, there is no government department, minister, or environmental agency willing to acknowlege this fact. Thus the Countryside Council for Wales (statutory adviser to Welsh Assembly Government) declares that the issue is "a matter of no more than local importance." Rather than reaching his own conclusions on this controversial issue, the Welsh Assembly's Minister for the Environment (Carwyn Jones) takes the view that those unhappy with the situation should seek legal advice.
Due to the Council's inability to control the noise nuisance all the owner occupiers have sold up, and moved out. The track has not been monitored for noise nuisance since June 2001. The properties are now in the possession of Bodorgan Estates, who have now secured Objective 1 European funding in order to further develop a noisy racing track within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in clear breach of local, national and EEC policy. In 2003 the local Council considered it appropriate to allocated public funding of £1.6 million towards a £4 million project to expand the circuit.