13 Feb 2010

Scrutiny meeting: planning inquiry report

It was Scrutiny meeting on Thursday night at Ebley Mill and I have already covered the report that I presented - see here - the rest of the agenda is here - below is a brief discussion on the planning inquiry that I have been working on....this blog post below barely touches on all the issues but gives a taster...a hasty taster.....very happy to talk at length if there are specific questions.

Photo: view to Ebley Mill from Standish Woods

I have spent a day in the planning department and attended over 12 meetings - usually Friday afternoons to look into planning - we are failing to meet targets and we wanted to look at why and what could be done to improve matters. Well an inquiry report has been put together - it contains our recommendations. Getting 4 councillors from different parties to agree can be tricky but generally we accepted this final report.

For me it was important to retain the role of Parish and Town councils - even enhance their role - nationally they are not even a statutory consultee so it is tricky. I think we have achieved that if the recommendations are accepted.

The issues are, of course, very many that we covered in the inquiry and the final report is just a summary - for example we spent lots looking at how best e-consultation could be implemented without disatvantaging people - it will happen as Government are pushing but it also makes sense to cut down upon the thousands and thousands of papers photocopied and sent out - a massive saving if it is changed - at least now it will happen but with consultation with Parishes etc on how.

Another area we were keen on was around the principle of pre-application advice - it is well established in development control in this area. Government guidance acknowledges that the planning process is enhanced when applicants engage with the Council and the community at an early stage. Our inquiry recognised these benefits, but made recommendations for further improvements: all applicants could be required, as part of the validation process, to submit a statement identifying the extent of their pre application consultation and subsequent amendments. Applicants would also be encouraged to have a meeting with a planning officer prior to submission. This would lead to more discussion before the application is submitted and hopefully many more applications that are more acceptable to the community - thus less that come to committee which leads to us missing our targets on processing applications.

One issue I am concerned about is the current level of stress on staff in the department - it is clear that due to the cuts to staffing they are each handling more work than ever, This issue was discussed and noted in the report but is a staffing issue that we cannot consider directly in this report.

I could say tons more but wanted to note we recommended no change to District councillor call-in and no change to powers by Parish and Town Councils other than they need to meet the statutory 21 day target for comments - a third of applications don't meet this target - I know that wont be easy for all Parishes but that will mean they are treated the same as others and at present the delays are costing large sums of money and contributing to us missing targets. It is also worth noting that material considerations coming in after that date still need to be considered but will no longer mean they automatically go to DCC.

We have also urged significant improvements to the website and alerting folk to changes to applications - I contacted various other authorities to view best practice and it is clear we have slipped back. We have also argued for better and prompt feedback re Officers recommendations.

One area I don't agree with in our report is regarding the 5 letters - if 5 come in then the application automatically goes to DCC. This has not worked well - we discussed raising this limit but acknowledge that to raise it by small amount would merely encourage those opposing development to increase their canvassing to achieve the revised target. Likewise, raising the limit to say 50, would be disproportionate in smaller parishes. It should be noted that research carried out for the original review of the Scheme of Delegation showed that no application has been overturned by DCC solely on the basis of neighbour letters. More often than not that it is the ward member’s intervention at DCC which has tipped the balance.

I had originally thought that these 5 letters were a useful safety in terms of democracy, but I now see that they over complicate and lead to too many applications missing targets and not seriously being discussed at DCC - indeed see the webcasts and you will see how many of those barely have a moments discussion yet they help lead to financial penalties and extra work by Officers.

I personally would now not object to the 5 letters being deleted completely. I do not believe members of the public with objections will loose out: deleting the 5 letters leads to more of a role for Parish, Town and District councillors, who are after all, elected to represent their communities. Members of the public can still engage with planning officers, but they will need to also engage with their democratically elected representatives - Town/Parish Council, their District councillor or the chair of DCC if they wish the matter to go to DCC. These routes will, I believe, guarantee material objections will get heard at DCC, but reduce those planning applications from DCC that are not appropriate. It will also enhance the role of Parish/Town Councils. There are too many minor applications that are given virtually no scrutiny at DCC because it is clear that SDC cannot choose another route without opening itself to costly appeals etc. Indeed when I sat on DCC these items, I would say that these items were little more than a fig leaf of democracy and in reality wasted everybody's time.

Anyway the recommendations now to Cabinet in March.

No comments: