Choppy waters: What is going on at the Broads Authority?
PUBLISHED: 06:30 13 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:28 13 September 2017
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The body which looks after our greatest treasure - the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads - is facing questions about how it is run after an investigation by this newspaper uncovered widespread concerns.
Some politicians and businesses have urged the Broads Authority to reform and raised concerns ranging from the way it is governed to the way it makes planning decisions.
The authority, whose members are appointed by local councils and the secretary of state for the environment, rather than directly elected, is funded by taxpayers and boat tolls.
It acts as the planning authority for the area around the Broads waters all the way from Lowestoft to Stalham, covering a population of more than 6,000 people. It is responsible for conserving the area with its annual budget of £7m.
It has defended itself in the face of concerns from MPs and council leaders that it is unaccountable and said it was working on a review into its governance.
But our two-day investigation has found:
•A record number of complaints against its members by other members
•A growing divide between two factions of members
•It has lost half of its recent planning appeals
•Support for major reform of the authority including direct elections
A report which went before a Broads Authority committee at the end of June gave a hint as to how badly relationships have broken down between some of the organisation’s 21 members.
It said that while members of the public had raised just two complaints against the Authority’s members, there had been 15 by members against other members since 2016.
In 27 years before that, there had been just one.
The authority said none of these complaints were upheld and eight were made by one member.
We can reveal how the membership has divided between some councillors who were appointed by their local councils and are pushing for changes and some members appointed by the secretary of state who are supportive of the existing leadership, who are chairman Professor Jacquie Burgess and chief executive Dr John Packman.
The authority has rejected the idea of a divide, even though a report in July by chairman Prof Burgess said there were concerns that “an unhelpful schism seemed to be emerging” between two sets of members.
And in their annual feedback, several members raised their concerns the relationship between members and officers as well as between local councils and the Broads Authority had deteriorated. Senior officers raised the same fears in their appraisals, according to the report.
•‘They want to get rid of me over a phone box’
The relationship between councils and the authority worsened last year when Broadland District Council’s member Lana Hempsall was taken off the authority’s planning committee following a row over a phone box.
The Conservative councillor for Acle criticised a decision to tell Halvergate Parish Council it needed to put in a planning application to use a decommissioned phone box for community purposes.
“They felt that it was appropriate to sanction me because I took the side of my community, against an officer opinion,” she said. “Because I spoke out against an officer I’m still being ostracised.”
She has not been reappointed, despite the authority having a document called a “Duty to Cooperate” which states they will have members from each local council on the planning committee.
After she was not reappointed for a second time last month, the wording of the Duty to Cooperate changed to: “A number of the local authority appointed members sit on the planning committee.”
Leader of Broadland District Council Andrew Proctor said questions should be asked around why his councillor, Mrs Hempsall, was effectively removed.
“If you want an honest view on this she has been sidelined,” he said.
Mrs Hempsall added: “The fundamental problem with the Broads Authority is it’s a quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation).
“Why is an unelected quango performing the duties of a local planning authority?
“Members are accountable to nobody. It shouldn’t exist in a 21st century democracy but it does.”
One way the authority could be scrutinised is through the work of its Financial Scrutiny and Audit Committee.
But Mrs Hempsall claimed it failed to do its job properly because the leadership of the authority sat on it. Its chairman and the vice-chair are both on the committee.
She believes the solution is to have direct elections so all residents, landowners, businesses and toll payers can decide who is a member.
Her concern was backed by Ian Russell, director of Wroxham Barns.
He worked with the authority for years while chairman of Broads Tourism.
He claimed it had a “fortress-like culture”. “It was always on the defensive,” he said. “Clearly the organisation is damaged, probably because it feels it is under attack and it is not good at responding to what it perceives as attacks.”
•‘An unelected quango’
Concerns the Broads Authority is an “unelected quango” were raised in 2015 by the former vice chair of the organisation, David Broad. He accused it of having “draconian” rules for its members.
Speaking this week, he again called for the authority to have direct elections. He added there was “widespread disillusionment” among businesses and toll payers with the way the Authority works.
But Dr Packman, who has led the Authority since 2001, said the membership held him to account at every meeting.
“In practice at every meeting of the Broads Authority there is an opportunity for members to question me and my senior officers about progress on the strategic priorities, individual projects, and the implementation of previous decisions taken by the Authority, and members do,” he said.
Another authority member James Knight, who was also removed from a committee last year when he disagreed a position on a long-running planning row over Thorpe Island outside Norwich, has also raised concerns.
The authority denied that members who speak out are punished and said Mr Knight and Mrs Hempsall’s cases were very specific.
It said Mrs Hempsall was removed for “inappropriate” behaviour towards a planning officer.
Meanwhile, they said Mr Knight was removed as vice chairman of the navigation committee for his actions being “damaging” to the Broads Authority.
The authority pointed out both members were removed after a vote.
On the issues of accountability, raised by Mrs Hempsall and others, it said its governance was different to a local council. It said its decision making had recently been reviewed by an internal audit and given a clean bill of health.
It added the whole authority’s membership was responsible for holding the chief executive to account, rather than a scrutiny committee.
•A review beckons
At the end of last year Norfolk and Suffolk council leaders met to discuss what could be done to address their concerns about the Broads Authority.
The idea, put forward in January by Mrs Hempsall, was to get the Local Government Association (LGA) to carry out a review into the way it was being run.
But the day before members were meant to vote on Mrs Hempsall’s motion, Dr Packman, sent a letter to all members stating why they should reject it.
He argued it was not appropriate for the LGA to review the Broads, instead National Park Authorities should do it.
A spokesman for the authority said Dr Packman supported the “principle” of a review but in January he was concerned about the impact it would have on the authority’s work. He was now working on the review, they added.
Mrs Hempsall’s motion was backed by representatives of local councils, but not by Norwich City Council member Gail Harris. The members who are appointed by the secretary of state rejected it, meaning it failed. The review will now be carried out in October with input from both the National Park Authorities and the LGA.
Leader of Broadland District Council, Andrew Proctor, welcomed the review, as did leader of South Norfolk District Council John Fuller.
Mr Fuller said: “It is troubling the relationship between members and professional staff at the Authority seems to have broken down,” he said.
•What the MPs say
Broadland MP Keith Simpson said he had met the government minister responsible for National Parks, Lord Gardiner, before the general election to discuss the Broads Authority.
“There has been an ongoing concern about its responsibility, the way it is managed,” he said. “I know other MPs have similar concerns. It is a peculiar organisation. It is not dreadfully open to local concerns.”
North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he had “significant frustrations” over the years with the authority.
“People living in Broads have no say at all on what the Broads Authority does. It needs to be democratically accountable,” he said.
“I feel very uncomfortable with a body which has responsibility for a whole range of issues, including planning, that doesn’t actually have any direct democracy.”
But Peter Aldous, Waveney MP, said he did not share these concerns and had not received complaints about the authority.
“They have an exciting vision for the Suffolk Broads, which I’m working with them on,” he said.
Tomorrow: Planning rows, a five-year battle over a barge and tent disputes