THE council leader has accused a rival politician of turning planning into a political football after putting officers in the ‘firing line’.

Cllr Ryan Bate (LD – Grappenhall), who is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Warrington South, has described the current state of the Labour-run authority’s planning department as unfit for purpose due to a ‘perfect storm’ of cutbacks, IT failings and a number of high-profile applications.

He says it is vital for the town to get planning right, while insisting his party would do things differently locally and nationally.

“Unfortunately, the situation has resulted in the public completely losing confidence in a planning system in which they do not feel they can properly participate,” he said.

“Despite the hard work of the remaining planning officers, the service is simply unfit for purpose.

“Whether real or perceived, the public feel that developers and landowners have far too much influence over planning.”

Cllr Bate also took a swipe at Warrington & Co.

He added: “In another worrying twist, it has become clear that the council’s regeneration arm, Warrington & Co, is working closely with developers on a detailed masterplan for the garden suburb concept in the local plan.

“I am sure there is a time and a place for these discussions but for them to be taking place behind closed doors before the local plan is adopted seems premature.

“For this to be done by a team within the council who have strong relationships with landowners and a bias towards development, rather than by the planning policy team who consider the local plan from a wider perspective, does not sit right with me.

“This is not a problem unique to Warrington.”

However, it has sparked a response from council leader Cllr Russ Bowden (LAB – Birchwood), who believes Cllr Bate should have raised the issues with him.

Cllr Bowden, who says he was left really disappointed by the comments, also believes Cllr Bate’s press release on the matter was ‘basically a party political broadcast’.

He said: “I think it is really bad form for politicians to attack council officers because council officers have got no right of reply and, actually, some of those issues are just fundamentally wrong.

“Planning, like any other aspect of council services, has been affected by austerity.

“We are trying to manage the best we can with the resources we have got.

“I think it is fair to say that there have been some issues relating to staff and management in recent times and we have taken steps to fix that.”

Town Hall chiefs were previously urged to tackle the ‘deep-rooted’ issues facing the planning department.

It came after Colin Walker, who had been the development control manager for two years, left the authority in December.

A new development control manager has now been appointed and is due to start in August.

Cllr Bowden added: “There are a lot of planning issues – Warrington is a prosperous town and we do have a large number of planning applications and professional offices are needed to give councillors on the committee proper, impartial advice for councillors to make decisions on.

“I think what we are probably seeing is a bit of a reaction to issues over the local plan and making planning into a political football.

“I think it is completely unwarranted, unjustified and undignified to do that and put officers in the firing line.”