Just what I say: Brian Nicholls

Date: Tuesday 2nd August 2016

WORK-related stress is a serious matter. Those of us who have experienced it will have some sympathy with the call from Eden Council’s chief executive, Robin Hooper, in his interview with this newspaper published last week, for members of the public not to cause added stress to his planning officers by making “unacceptable” attacks on them by e-mail or letter.

The problem is that Mr. Hooper highlights the symptoms but there doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgement of the malady at Eden which causes them.

By its very nature planning is an adversarial business, with applicants desperate to get their plans approved while objectors are equally determined to try to get them refused. In these cases where objections are raised, the planning system is caught in the middle, except that on some occasions it is not in the middle, but is firmly at one end of the scale of justice tipping what should be an equal balance against one party, usually the objector(s).

In these circumstances it is quite understandable that the party who feel themselves wronged by a system which gave them no help and appeared to do nothing but ignore their arguments should feel moved to make their feelings known.

Such disgruntled citizens could complain to the council, of course, if they feel that the planning process was biased, unfair or just plain wrong, but much good will it do them. While unsuccessful applicants automatically have a right of appeal, disappointed objectors have none, which is another injustice adding to the stress of many.

As the chief executive points out, the council does have a complaints procedure to deal with such grievances, but it is a procedure which is not fit for purpose or any purpose at all for that matter, other than to protect the reputation of the council and its officers.

If Mr. Hooper or any councillor is offended by that then perhaps they should ask themselves the question this column has posed several times over the past eight months — whether it is truly an open, transparent and fair system when the council department complained against investigates the complaint against itself and decides whether the complaint was justified, and whether they would accept such a system if it applied to them.

Mr. Hooper acknowledges that the Eden area benefits from an articulate and well informed public. Thank you for that but does that not lead him to suspect that such people would only be forced to resort to “overstepping the mark” in their communications with planning officers only when all reasoned argument and policy and precedents to support their objections have been ignored. Objectors are not well respected or treated by the planning system.

If planning is stressful for the experienced professional officers concerned, then how much more so for those who are going to potentially suffer from the bias of the current planning system. Planning officers need to constantly remember that with so much at stake they and the whole planning system need to be scrupulous, fair and even handed in dealing with both applicants and objectors, and far too may “articulate and well informed” objectors will happily tell Mr. Hooper that it often is not.

Instead of reviewing the letters and e-mails of desperate and stressed members of the public, the council’s chief executive should review his organisation’s documents and advice to members of the public on planning applications to see whether applicants and objectors are treated equally.

He will find lots of useful advice and help for applicants, including personal guidance from officers, but almost nothing except what you cannot object to for those who wish to oppose an application. Objectors fight alone.

Stress is a two-edged sword and those who suffer from it are very often causing stress to others. Eden’s planning system does that because, as anyone researching previous decisions on applications similar or even identical to the one they are opposing soon discover, the only consistency at Eden is its inconsistency in applying its own policies.

In some key areas, such as what size of domestic extension in percentage terms of the current building is allowed, there is no policy; it is just suck and see on every occasion.How can anyone object on the grounds of some huge extension being overbearing to its neighbours (overbearing is a legitimate objection) if there is no actual limit to the size of extensions.

Planning officers can just move the rules to suit their recommendation. The decision is totally subjective and at the whim of individual planning officers. No wonder members of the public get stressed and insult officers.

This is a chicken and egg situation and if Mr. Hooper seriously wanted to address the issue of stress he could seriously ask what is so wrong with planning services that it causes stress for everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE attempted coup in Turkey last week, as well as raising some serious questions about the stability and future direction of that country and the consequences for the rest of us, prompted the usual worthless advice for worried holidaymakers and tourists.

Whenever anything like this happens the usual news correspondents and travel “experts” are taken out of the deep freeze so they can come on the telly to give their pointless guidance to those due to fly to the afflicted country. That advice is always the same: “Contact your airline to check what the situation is before leaving for the airport.”

Check with an airline? How precisely does one do that when airlines don’t have real people working for them any more and have these travel experts ever tried it?

The entire airline industry, like some chimera of mythology, lives in the depths of the cavernous voids of the Internet. You find out where the airline flies to and when on the Internet, you book your ticket on the Internet, print it off or have it sent to your mobile or other device on the Internet and you pay via the Internet, and all of this is done without any human contact whatsoever. And it is all done this way so that EasyJet or Ryan Air (never again) don’t have to employ people to answer phones. So when a volcano erupts or militaries coup how do you “contact your airline” along with the other 200,000 people who want to do so at the same time?

You might as well rub your backside with a hot brick as my granddad used to say for all the good trying to ring an airline will do you — and that is stress.

WHEN I was a teacher, one thing which used to miff me in the mornings just before school actually started was the daily briefing, especially when senior management ducked the unpleasant responsibility of tackling underperforming individuals by giving everyone on the staff a blanket telling off for turning up to lessons late or letting 10 kids go to the toilet at the same time and not checking up when they didn’t come back for half an hour.

It was a cowardly business and pointless, for they always missed the mark. Those of us who were on the ball, good disciplinarians and top flight classroom warriors were affronted by being told to sharpen up while those individuals whom we all knew were not up to the mark were totally unaware of their own shortcomings and so just thought the deputy head was talking about someone else.

I was reminded of those times this week when it was revealed that medics are recommending we all take Vitamin D supplements as winter sun does not provide enough of it naturally, which means we are suddenly susceptible to rickets, which was a thing of the past before even I was born, and muscle weakness and pain.

Presumably winter sun in these latitudes never did give us enough Vitamin D, so why has this suddenly become such an issue?

It hasn’t. Not for me or for most of us, but it is for those who are covered up all year round and so have little or no exposure to sunlight or who eat a diet deficient in red meat, eggs, etc. But, just like our briefings, the authorities don’t want to cause offence to the minorities who are actually affected, so they are telling us all to take unnecessary chemicals.