Officials have been left red faced after a junior staff member was unwittingly let loose on approving and rejecting planning notices, with one applicant, a charity boss, told their scheme was turned down because: “Your proposal is whack”.
The blunder came about when the Mid Kent Planning Support team, which handles the online submissions on behalf of Swale council, was trying to resolve software issues.
In doing so, five ‘dummy’ decisions, used to test the website was working, were accidentally published.
Among them was the sarcastic refusal to a desperate bid by Happy Pants animal sanctuary to stay on its site in Bobbing, near Sittingbourne.
The charity received the response “your proposal is whack” and “no mate, proper whack”. Making good the mistaken planning decisions is now set to cost £8,000.
Terry Rowse butchers’ change of use to a takeaway in Chaucer Road, Sittingbourne, was also turned down, with the official comments reading simply “no”, and “just don’t”, while the partial demolition of The Wheatsheaf pub in East Street, Sittingbourne, was granted, with the response “incy, wincy, spider”.
Meanwhile, an application for the change of use for a barn to provide storage for seeds and crop protection products, precision farm services and office space in Bredgar Road, Tunstall, was granted, as was the fifth application, for the demolition of the Old House At Home pub in Sheerness High Street, to make way for flats. The latter's comment was “why am I doing this, am I the chosen one?”
Swale council is now seeking to quash the planning decisions issued in error.
It said that, on August 19, officers for the Mid Kent Planning Support team were trying to find a solution for issues with the software behind the public access site but, during the exercise, ‘dummy’ decision notices on five randomly selected Swale applications were published on the live system.
After being alerted to the mistake, the decision notices were swiftly removed from the site, but legal advice has subsequently confirmed they are legally binding and must be overturned before the correct decisions are made.
Speaking about the error, Amey James, founder of The Happy Pants Ranch, said: “Obviously the comments are quite laughable, but if I had gone on there this morning before I saw the email from Swale council about the error I think I would have had a heart attack – I would have been properly panicking; the future of the ranch depends on this decision."
She added: “I kept thinking this was going to go to the planning committee in September, but now because of this, it’s probably going to be delayed even further.
Happy Pants founder Amey James talks about the council's planning blunder
“At this rate, we are probably not going to know by Christmas. It’s just awful not knowing.”
Swale council’s leader, Cllr Roger Truelove, and deputy leader, Cllr Mike Baldock, said they were angered and frustrated that an administrative error by staff working in the Mid Kent shared planning service had led to the issuing of false planning decision notices.
They said: “These errors will have to be rectified but this will cause totally unnecessary concern to applicants. This is not the first serious problem following the transfer of our planning administration to Mid Kent shared services.
“We will wait for the outcome of a proper investigation and then consider our appropriate response as a council.”
Swale council said the language was used by a junior officer with no knowledge of the applications, who believed they were working solely in a test environment with the comments never being published.
It added that an investigation was underway to understand exactly what happened “to ensure that lessons are learned and any necessary action in relation to the conduct of officers involved is taken”.
The authority said the quickest legal way to deal with the issue was to use the judicial review process to have the decisions quashed
It added: “This is not uncommon and, if uncontested, could be complete in two to three months. We have notified each of the applicants of the error and will continue to liaise with them as the matter progresses.”
The review is expected to cost about £8,000, if unchallenged, and Swale council expects Mid Kent to pay for it.
"Where is the quality control when testing software?"
Julien Speed, chairman of Lynsted with Kingsdown Parish Council, said: "This is quite an extraordinary error. Yes the public access site for planning needs much improvement, but where is the quality control when testing software?
"Swale council is now saying they will seek a judicial review through the courts to overturn these five rogue decisions. What a massive waste of ratepayers’ money."
Cllr Cameron Beart, who represents Queenborough and Halfway on Swale council, added: "I am absolutely horrified that one of them is the demolition of the Old House at Home in Sheerness High Street.
"I make no comment about the application in general, but if it has been approved without any consideration and without any conditions attached, it is a serious issue."