The pantomime needs a new script, by Graeme Bell

It was the office panto at the civic centre and Mother Goose just didn't know where to turn. Played by the leader of the council, she had a duty to her electorate, her party and her council - an interchangeable priority on every issue.

In climbing the giant political beanstalk she had mastered the art of survival, but looking at the draft budget for 2016/17, she wondered whether she was pâté on toast. The old adage of ‘behind you’ was apt, for her own party in government was the villain. She could cope with the opposition in front, the real enemies were the Westminster backstabbers. Cosseted backstage with her finance director – who was, as usual, in character as Ebenezer Scrooge – she examined the numbers again and fumed.

"The gap we have to close is huge and we’ve done everything that’s been asked of us, even co-operating with neighbouring councils on the bits we can agree on," she said. "We’ve outsourced all the back office stuff but these contracts are now costing us serious money, and feedback tells us the public hates the helpline service supplied direct from Timbuctoo. People want to speak to a human being who lives here and knows the town!"

Scrooge felt the dig about the helpline, because it was his savings idea from last year. But, like all treasurers, he was adept at pulling rabbits out of hats. "The planning service can be our cash cow," he declared. "Pre-app meetings, for example, are a licence to print money. We can get a load of money by asking applicants to produce a heap of documents on which we offer vague guidance that leaves us unfettered." Mother Goose smiled. She had no qualms beating up developers, who were always making life difficult, asking awkward questions about the elusive draft local plan.

"And although fees for applications are fixed, if developers want their application dealt with in a timely fashion, then they’ll need to foot the staff bill." The goose nodded enthusiastically. "And finally," – and here’s where Scrooge produced what he hoped would be the golden egg that would go on giving – "we can be more creative on unilateral undertakings.

Developers want their consent quickly, and to then get going, yet section 106 agreements and the levy take time and box us all in, offering no freedom to spend wherever our priorities lie at the time. I think we should be able to pull in enough to fund all the central departments’ revenue costs. And, as an incentive, we could even offer ten per cent off if developers pay within a week!"

Mother Goose cheered, but then realised it meant they would actually have to produce a plan and grant permissions rather than kick the can down the road to Bristol. She knew this was electoral suicide and the mantra was to keep control at any cost. Gloom descended again.

Meanwhile, the chief planner emerged from the back end of the cow. "This is the yellow brick road to ruin, not a fairy tale with a happy ending. We must have a new script."

Graeme Bell OBE is a past president of the Planning Officers Society

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