Further changes mooted as planning service improves

Planning committees used to be held locally in the evenings, but now take place at County Hall.

Planning committees used to be held locally in the evenings, but now take place at County Hall.

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Northumberland may alter its planning structure again by reducing the number of committees from three to two countywide.

The county council agreed a major overhaul of its planning system in April last year in the face of continuing poor performance and the fear that the Government could intervene and make decisions on its behalf.

A review after six months, which was discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting of the economic growth and corporate services scrutiny committee, concluded that, in the words of Coun Milburn Douglas: “We have taken steps in the right direction, but there are still hurdles to cross.”

Introducing the review, Geoff Paul, the council’s director of planning and economy, said: “The reality is the planning service had never met its targets since local government reorganisation (in 2009) in terms of turning around planning applications.

“Some of those changes introduced were, in some quarters, unpopular, but we did agree to review that in six months’ time.

“What that does show is that, for the first time, targets are being met. Credit to the people on the ground who have managed the turnaround; at the same time, we have cut costs and improved the service.

The review is split into four areas – the performance in relation to determining applications, the scheme of delegation, the new committee system (see below) and areas which remain a concern and need improvement, including planning enforcement and consultee response times.

The figures show that the council is now surpassing all of its determination targets and town and parish councils reflected positively on the changes to delegation despite concerns that their objections would be ignored.

Last year, three countywide committees were introduced, but it has been found that the strategic group, which deals with major schemes, has had a heavier workload than the other two.

Now, it is suggested that there should be just two countywide committees dealing with all applications, with rights of way issues dealt with separately.

Coun Gordon Castle asked if consideration could be given to splitting the two geographically as he had noticed an increase in the number of site visits due to councillors not being familiar with the application sites before the committee. However, it was pointed out that a move away from the area-based planning committees had been a major part of last year’s overhaul.