12 Nov 2010

Parish and councillor powers removed by Tories

Some will remember that I have been part of the Task and Finish Group looking into changes of the Planning Delegation process. Well in a political vote last night even Tory councillors who had supported the scrutiny report we put forward only a month or so ago voted against it at the meeting! They only just managed it and I believe our democracy will be all the worse for it...

Photo: Randwick Woods

The key bone of contention was that many of us wanted to retain the Parish/Town Councils ability to send an item to the Development Control Committee - this has now been reduced to only a request to Chair of DCC to take it to that committee - taking that part of the process out of the open and into a private meeting. Below is some background and some of the points that I made at the meeting....it is rather late at night - I got there before 6pm and didn't get home until 11.40 after the meeting - and a long day at work so please excuse if not all this makes total sense!!

Here is some background....

Let me start with the District Council’s Annual General Meeting in May 2009. I will use a paper produced by the Cabinet member for some of this blog - but have added and altered it slightly to represent my viewpoint but I hope to also put her side fairly.

At that meeting district councillors were asked to consider changes to the Planning Scheme of Delegation – i.e. the council’s process for considering planning applications. It was a firey meeting where the Tories withdrew their proposed changes - see here. Members agreed to defer any decision for further consideration; and subsequently, the Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee (POSC) was asked to carry out a review and report back to Council.

A “task and finish” group (T&FG) of members of the POSC were asked to investigate how planning performance could be improved, and make recommendations on both the officer and member side of the process. I was part of that group. The T&FG carried out a thorough review during the summer and autumn, reporting back to POSC in February 2010 - see here - and yes we had over 12 half day meetings looking at all this and interviewing various other specialists and Councils.

POSC completed their deliberations in early spring and fed-back a preliminary report to Cabinet for observations. At this point Cabinet, whilst welcoming the majority of the recommendations, felt that costings would be beneficial to its deliberations. I note that we had nbeen asked to finish our report early so that costings could be included but they did not get done - hence the deferral.

On receiving the figures, and mindful that the financial environment had moved on significantly since the original debate, Cabinet felt able to accept the bulk of the recommendations of POSC, but chose to offer an alternative view on the scheme of delegation element. The difference in opinion, which will be debated by Council, revolve around which applications go before the Development Control Committee (DCC)

What are the changes?

Currently applications can be sent to DCC for a variety of reasons; however most of these are “automatic”, for example 5 or more letters of objection, where regardless of how pertinent the issues raised were, the application would be put on the list. This is also true of applications where the parish and the officer have opposing views. The POSC recommendation was to remove the trigger for letters of objection and guillotine parish and town comments at 21 days from notification. While not entirely happy with these points we recognised the system needed to be improved. We also made a whole host of other recommendations to speed and we hope improve the process.

However while accepting most of our recommendations Cabinet preferred a route which got accepted last night where the Chair of DCC will consider what items go on the agenda of DCC. This removes the ability of a Parish/Town Council to automatically send an application to DCC. This now puts us in line with other Gloucestershire councils but in my view is not the right move as I will note below.

It should be noted that around 90% of all planning applications are currently resolved by officers, and of those that go to DCC (179 in 2009-10) 92% are determined in line with officers’ advice.

Here is what the Cabinet Member Cllr Barbara Tait writes: "In no way will this affect the way we deal with the comments from the town, parish or member of the public. We will continue to appreciate the contributions made by community representatives. As a member of DCC I am grateful for the local view on many of the applications that come before me, and as portfolio holder, I also know how much my officers value your input. The changes could be quite beneficial it that parish councils will no longer have to ensure that their comments accord with the local plan policies. I understand that this can be cumbersome and time consuming. Instead, what I would prefer is your open and honest approach to the proposal, unfettered by such restrictions. I will rely on my fellow councillors to bring the arguments together and voice these where appropriate."

I totally disagree that these changes could be beneficial - the only objections allowed to be considered are planning ones - not listing those will only hasten rejection of those comments in my view. How can that be an improvement?

Why make changes to the Scheme of Delegation?

This is what the Cabinet Member writes: "From the outset, the review of the Planning Scheme of Delegation set out to increase the speed and consistency of determining planning applications in order to: · increase customer satisfaction levels – a speedier service · support economic development – by removing unnecessary delays · reduce costs"

It is estimated that the POSC scheme of delegation will save £40,000 against the current scheme - ie more than a 40% saving - Cabinet suggest a further £30,000 a year could be saved by their changes. I am not sure I entirely agree with these estimates which are not in staff - with the £30,000 no staff posts are disappearing as a result, it will just mean the planners can do other work. I also wonder if not more investment in legal advice might help us win appeals - I learnt this evening we now only have 2 days of advice when we used to have 5 per week. Figures from the past year show that all applications which were refused by DCC against officer advice, which were subsequently appealed by the applicant, were then overturned by the inspector. However how would it have been with better legal advice?

Anyhow Ward members, and parish and town councils (via their ward members), can still request that an application is considered by DCC, but once again, these would be considered by the Chair of DCC and the Head of Planning in order to ensure that only applications of major importance or wider significance were referred. There is still at least a process for ward members to use to request that an application is considered at DCC. An amendment made to the papers means that Parish/Town Councils can also request. There is also a review after 12 months.

So to finish here are some quick notes of some of the points I made:
As one of those on this Task and Finish Group I welcome that many of the recommendations have been accepted. However I am disappointed with the Cabinet recommendations regarding the removal of the ward member and the Parish/Town Councils trigger for applications to go to DCC.

Firstly these changes are coming in without some of those most effected by the changes having been consulted properly. A questionnaire went to Parish Councils but it did not ask their specific opinion on this proposed change. Why no consultation when we have consulted so well on the Corse Strategy and plan to re e-planning issues?

Secondly I recognise that DCC has on occasions too many applications to do justice to them all. In the Task and Finish Group this was completely recognised and many of our recommendations specifically seek to tackle the problem - for example it was considered the first step should be to provide better training, better feedback and more support to Parish and Town Councils. We could for example make Parish and Town Councils more aware of the issues and also as recommended introduce a box whereby Councils could object to a planning application but also make clear whether they would like this objection to go to DCC or not. Indeed in the feedback from Parish and Town Councils there was overwhelming support for more training.
This we considered would lead to more informed decisions by Parish and Town Councils and a better use of the trigger. It was considered by the Group that this could reduce the number of the applications going to DCC. We would then review in a year and see if other measures were necessary.

Thirdly I don't believe now is the time to make these changes. Eric Pickles plans further changes to planning and I would like to first see how Parish and Town Councils respond to the changes outlined in the Scrutiny report and take up the challenge of helping us improve our planning system.

Lastly some of the Parish and Town Councils have already expressed concerns at the possible loss of the ability to trigger applications going to DCC. I recognise local views will, as always, be taken into account but it is very different for an application to go to DCC in public as opposed to being heard by the Head of Planning and Chair of DCC. Eric Pickles wants localism which he defines as “allowing communities to shape their neighbourhoods and share in the benefits”. I consider if this move goes ahead it goes against the spirit of localism. It could also lead to less interest by local Councils in participating in the planning process.
I will not be able to support the Cabinet recommendations.

Another Councillor quoted the Tory website which says under local government: "The Government believes that it is time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people. We will promote decentralisation and democratic engagement, and we will end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals." Great stuff but this move doesn't fit with the changes to planning at all. Very disappointing but now the challenge is to make it work - and ensure that local voices are still heard. I do consider that this can still be done but do regret that openness provided by DCC with the automatic trigger.

Anyway several other items also discussed at Council but I have run out of steam!!

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