6 Apr 2009

Changes to planning threatens democracy?

The District Council are proposing changes to the scheme of delegation for the determination of planning applications.

Photo: the old Stroud College being destroyed to make way for the new and homes - local views about cycle paths, access and more were ignored.

The reason behind the proposed changes are that the Government sets targets on planning delivery, which we are expected to meet. The Council's performance is measured against these Government set indicators, and that performance is rewarded through a system of annual grants known as PDG (Planning Delivery Grants), (now HPDG – Housing & Planning Delivery Grants). The latter now includes grants based on housing construction rates.

The targets are:-
· 60% of Major applications determined in less than 13 weeks.
· 65% of Minor applications determined in less than 8 weeks.
· 80% of householder & other planning applications determined in less than 8 weeks.

The vast majority of all of the applications that come to DCC (Development Control Committee) miss these targets. In a recent report from the Audit Commission that we discussed at Scrutiny last week the performance of the current scheme of delegation was cited as being the reason for the Council’s poor performance in the speed with which it determines planning applications.

The Council need to now look closely at the scheme of delegation and they argue comply more closely with the DCLG (Department of Communities & Local Government) recommendations, that in excess of 90% of applications should be dealt with through delegation. Indeed in a recent Government review of the planning system it is recommended that Development Control Committees should only deal with those applications that are of ‘major importance or wider significance’, raising the bar even higher. The Government’s view is that this would speed up the decision making process for applicants, where delays can impact on viability, and for neighbours, in that the period of uncertainty can be limited.

At this point the Tory administration are seeking views. They note that the input from Town and Parish Councils "has been, and still is extremely important to us, and we always welcome their views and knowledge of local issues and these will always be taken into account when making a final decision. However, we believe that where their policy based comments are contrary to an officer’s recommendation, it should not be automatic that the application is then presented to the full Development Control Committee, as is the case at present."

Stroud is now the only District in Gloucestershire that does so and this is reflected in what is described as 'poor performance' relative to the other neighbouring authorities.

The changes that they are considering, relate to the creation of a panel of three members who would consider the level of importance or wider significance of a proposal and the related representations, and then decide whether or not these applications should be presented to the Development Control Committee. They also note that: "Whilst we are being externally driven, we must also achieve the best results for the whole District – both in sound, well-judged decisions, but also in terms of achieving value for money and maximising funding through the attainment of targets."

At the Scrutiny meeting several councillors including myself made clear their concerns about the loss of democracy by reducing Parish Council rights - there was also anger from some that Government targets are driving this change - often when a target is not met within the time it is because greater consideration to local views is being taken. However it is also true that the Council could improve targets and that a number of applications that come to DCC that go against officers decisions then go onto appeal and are lost costing the Council money. Is this a fair cost for greater democracy? Or is this about better training for all councillors? For me a large part of it is that central government have such a tight hold on us that there is little room for manoeuvre on decisions - indeed I have heard some councillors say there is no point in DCC as you can't really make decisions locally. This is not a view I take but it is true that powers of DCC and the Council are much much more limited than the public imagine.

Anyhow in addition the Council also wants to look at issues over how Development Control Committee operates, for example, should any alterations be made to the Development Control Committee? Meeting times, membership, reducing numbers or what? Should major applications automatically come to DCC ? Or be automatically delegated ? Or go before the suggested panel?

I do have very real concerns about changes and want to see all the options being presented but it is right that the Council looks at this - and to be fair it is the Government that is driving the changes? What are others views? Do let me know - Greens will be looking at them in more detail over the coming week - we have already submitted detailed questions about why planning applications are delayed at the moment and a host of other issues. Comments can be made up until the end of the month then the proposals will be presented to the Council's AGM on May 21st for adoption.

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