Monday, 20 November 2017

Bedford Borough Council Officers Like To Do It (Part 1 of 2) Behind Closed Doors

In 2013, the then Assistant Director of Environment and Communities at Bedford Borough Council approved public path order making procedures. It’s a well-written set of procedures contained in a three-and-a-half A4-sized page document offering: council officers clear, comprehensive working practices and; the public an explanation of a transparent, accountable process, snappily entitled: “Procedure for exercise of delegated powers in respect of public path orders under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA90), the Highways Act 1980 (HA80) and the Cycle Tracks Act 1984 (CTA84)". It’s a good and proper title but I’ll refer to it as the “Procedures Document”.

  • “What’s delegated powers?” I hear someone mumble. 
  • A local authority can delegate any of its functions to its officers. For example, it can direct that public path orders will be determined by council officers rather than, say, the council’s planning committee.
  • Bedford Borough Council has done just that; it has delegated particular public path order making powers to nominated council officers as set out in the “Planning Committee Scheme of Delegations to Officers” which is contained in the Council’s Constitution. 
Back to the Procedures Document: where one of the procedures requires a Case Officer to submit a report relating to a public path order proposal to a Deciding Officer. The report sets out the case for or against a proposal with a recommendation that the proposal be approved or refused. At the same time (seven working days before a decision is scheduled to be taken) the Case Officer’s Report is published on the Council’s website. This is good practice and one that the Council can fairly claim is in accordance with the Local Government Transparency Code it says they adhere to.

Recently, following a review behind closed doors and without any consultation, a decision was taken to change the procedures. Despite requests for information, I haven’t been able to establish what the amendments amount to nor who approved them, although the immediate effects are that consultation periods have been reduced and reports have not been published. Since abandoning the Procedures document, in August I think, officers have administered the public path order process as they see fit.

In September, council officers made their first public path orders of the year – eight of them. No reports were published prior to the making of the Orders and none have been published since.

In October, when the path orders appeared, I requested copies of the reports. They can be mine to read, I was eventually told, but it would have to be treated as a request pursuant to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the reports would be redacted, it could take up to 20 working days to supply them, and I’d have to pay £50. Yes Dear Reader, just £50 for something previously free, un-redacted and available before a decision was taken.

A compromise was called for (that’s me compromising with me) – fifty quid is a bit steep: I’d request just two for starters and save for the full set, to be told that there’ll be no charge for two reports. Buy eight for £50 or two at a time free strikes me as an odd business model.

It’s November and I now have three reports. I’d asked for Report Nos. 1 and 2 but was sent Nos. 1 and 3 (both incomplete) but have since received the missing parts and the absent No. 2. The next two are on order. I’ve been given different reasons at different times why the reports haven’t been published, none of which add up. I have had my own suspicion which is essentially that they’d rather do it without us watching.

It made me even more curious because I couldn’t help thinking that delaying tactics, among other things, were in play here. Or is it just me: CLICK

My curiosity led me to the Council’s Constitution and what I found was .. well, quite shocking but you’ll have to wait to find out until the next instalment later this week:

Bedford Borough Council Officers Like To Do It (Part 2 of 2) Ultra Vires.

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