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Council culture: Software test leads to absurd local planning SNAFU

Swale Borough Council faced with hefty bill for junior IT hero's whimsical afternoon's work

A borough council in the English county of Kent is fuming after a software test on the council's website led to five nonsensical dummy planning application documents being mistakenly published as legally binding decisions.

According to a statement from Swale Borough Council, staff from the Mid Kent Planning Support Team had been testing the software when "a junior officer with no knowledge of any of the applications" accidentally pressed the button on five randomly selected Swale documents, causing them to go live on the Swale website.

After learning what had happened, the council moved to remove the erroneous decisions from public display, but according to the statement: "Legal advice has subsequently confirmed they are legally binding and must be overturned before the correct decisions are made."

Legal advice has subsequently confirmed they are legally binding and must be overturned before the correct decisions are made

Publishing randomly generated planning decisions is obviously bad enough, but the problems got worse for Swale when it was discovered that the "junior officer" who made the mistake had also added their own comments to the notices in the manner of somebody "who believed they were working solely in a test environment and that the comments would never be published," as the council diplomatically described it.

So it was that despite scores of supportive messages from residents, the splendidly named Happy Pants Ranch animal sanctuary had its retrospective application for a change of land use [PDF] controversially refused, on the grounds that "Your proposal is whack. No mate, proper whack," while an application to change the use of a building in Chaucer Road, Sittingbourne, from a butchers to a fast-food takeaway [PDF] was similarly denied with the warning: "Just don't. No."

The blissfully unaware office junior continued their cheerful subversion of Kent's planning bureaucracy by approving an application to change the use of a barn in the village of Tunstall [PDF], but only on condition of the numbers 1 to 20 in ascending order. They also approved the partial demolition of the Wheatsheaf pub in Sittingbourne and the construction of a number of new flats on the site [PDF], but only as long as the project is completed within three years and "Incy Wincy Spider."

Finally, Mid Kent's anonymous planning hero granted permission for the demolition of the Old House at Home pub in Sheerness [PDF], but in doing so paused to ponder the enormous responsibility which had unexpectedly been heaped upon them, commenting: "Why am I doing this? Am I the chosen one?"

For their part, Swale Borough Council's elected representatives were less than impressed by the work of their colleagues at the Mid Kent Planning Support Team and wasted no time in resolutely throwing them under the bus.

"These errors will have to be rectified but this will cause totally unnecessary concern to applicants," thundered Swale councillors Roger Truelove, Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance, and Mike Baldock, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Planning in a shared statement. "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."

The transfer mentioned refers to the formation of Mid Kent Services in 2008, a partnership between Swale Borough Council, Maidstone Borough Council and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council intended to share resources, improve services and reduce costs across seven different departments, seemingly with unpredictable results.

The council now faces the task of undoing the damage wrought by the nameless and now possibly jobless IT underling.

"An investigation is 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 council rumbled, ominously.

"The quickest legal way to deal with the issue is to use the judicial review process to have the decisions quashed through a judicial review. This is not uncommon and, if uncontested, could be complete in two to three months," the statement continued.

According to a report on the KentOnline website, this process could cost the council £8,000 in taxpayer funds.

Given that the documents are considered legally binding, developers attempting to obtain permission for controversial projects may also be able to act on approved decisions before they are overturned, even if they were issued in error.

A notice published on the council web page for each of the affected planning decisions states that the council "will continue to liaise with [each applicant] as the matter progresses," but that judicial review to quash the decisions could take "two to three months."

"I am absolutely horrified that one of [the decisions] is the demolition of the Old House at Home in Sheerness High Street," Councillor Cameron Beart, the representative for Queenborough and Halfway on Swale council, told KentOnline. "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."

The Reg has contacted Swale Borough Council for comment and were told it was "still carrying out in internal investigation to get to the bottom of how this happened." ®

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