Councillors hit back over criticism of ‘fractured’ relations with officers
Liam Randall, local democracy reporter
Councillors have hit back after an Audit Wales report criticised their “fractured” relationship with officers.
The report raised concerns after carrying out a review which found Wrexham Council’s planning service was being hindered in fulfilling its role.
The public spending watchdog’s report was particularly critical of the local authority’s failure to adopt a Local Development Plan (LDP) at the time the review was conducted.
Auditors said this had caused a breakdown in relations between elected members and officers, accusing councillors of “undermining” their professional advice.
Wrexham’s LDP, which sets out land where around 8,000 homes could be built in the county borough, was later adopted in December after a court quashed two previous votes by politicians to reject it.
However, a further legal challenge has since been launched against the adoption of the key strategic document by a group of as-yet unnamed councillors.
Wrexham Council leader Mark Pritchard, who is among those who opposed the LDP, said the situation had left members feeling they did not have a voice.
Speaking at an audit committee meeting where the findings were discussed last week, he said: “I have been contacted by lots of elected members saying that they feel the blame is being placed on them.
“Some of them wouldn’t come here today because they felt that their voice wouldn’t be listened to.
“That’s how bad we are in this council with the planning process, and you can’t hide away from it.
“There’s a role here for everybody to play because if you don’t come together then you won’t fix it.
“It concerns me and others that we’re focusing in on elected members.”
The Audit Wales report described relationships between councillors and officers as “not productive”, highlighting planning meetings where members had publicly questioned professional advice.
They said the council needed to consider how such behaviour impacts on the wellbeing of officers after some councillors reportedly refused to undergo training surrounding their conduct.
The auditors recommended that the authority should ensure that councillors comply with policies surrounding their conduct and that they understand their roles on committees.
However, Cllr Pritchard said he did not see a problem with members making decisions which were contrary to the advice of officers.
The leader of the council’s independent/Conservative coalition added: “What I do have an issue with is that there’s a democratic process and we all have to respect it.
“Members of the planning committee, the licensing committee and all the scrutiny committees are entitled to vote whichever way they want. It’s called discretion and that’s how it should be.”
Despite this, lay committee member Don Sturgeon said he did have concerns about councillors’ behaviour towards officers.
It came after he revealed he had been approached by a council staff member who alleged they had been bullied by a politician.
He said: “I’ve had an officer approach me personally with complaints about bullying and harassment and fear of losing their job if they took the matter further.
“They also said that if it did go through the due process, whatever happened, they would still have to work with that particular member.
“I do feel that they need to be made aware of the correct procedures to follow without personal consequences for themselves and also that action should be taken against perpetrators if the investigation is upheld.”
Meanwhile, Cefn west councillor Stella Matthews said politicians had a duty to their communities to represent their views.
She added that members sometimes felt unable to do so during planning meetings.
She said: “On major planning applications that come to planning committee, I think people should remember that members also have a responsibility to their community and to the wider area.
“Sometimes there is a frustration that this point is not being picked up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly been disrespectful to an officer, but I think it’s frustration sometimes that you can’t get a local point across.”
Labour group leader Dana Davies said she did not have an issue with councillors sharing their opinions in meetings.
However, she criticised cases where she said members had ignored external legal advice on planning matters.
And committee chair Jerry O’Keeffe said he was “really concerned” about the impact of politicians’ behaviour on staff.
The majority of committee members approved measures aimed at addressing the problems raised by Audit Wales at the end of the debate, with three choosing to abstain.
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