Performance is improving, but is that what’s needed?

Planning committees used to be held locally in the evenings, but now take place at County Hall at 2pm.

Planning committees used to be held locally in the evenings, but now take place at County Hall at 2pm.

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‘We are just doing what the Government wants us to do when we should be looking at what residents want us to do’ – that’s one councillor’s view of the planning system.

The comments, by Coun Jeff Reid, came during a debate at Tuesday’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s cabinet.

Members were discussing a review of the authority’s planning service, previously reported by the Northumberland Gazette, following the wholesale changes last year.

The major overhaul was agreed in April last year in the face of continuing poor performance and the fear that the Government could intervene and make decisions on the council’s behalf.

Now, improved performance in terms of time taken to determine applications and against government thresholds led to councillors praising the planning department and its officers.

However, Coun Reid said: “Our officers have managed to get a hold of things and comply with what the Government wants us to do, but being driven by the standards they set has taken the democratic voice out of the planning system. By 2020, Mark (Ketley, senior planning manager) will be sat with a rubber stamp for whoever comes through the door because that’s what the Government wants us to do.”

Geoff Paul, the council’s director of planning and economy, responded by saying that the changes were driven by the desire to provide a good-quality service, ‘not Government diktat’.

But Coun Peter Jackson also had concerns, saying: “I don’t think we can just gloss over the whole of the planning system and say there aren’t any problems.”

He raised a number of issues including the abolition of the geographical planning committees, town and parish councils’ dissatisfaction and committee members’ perceived inability to go against planning-officer advice.

Coun Robert Arckless said: “There were obviously issues with the way we did things before and I think the area-based committees were part of that. There are advantages in terms of local knowledge, but you also have the problem of community pressure on members in an era when the planning framework is pretty tough.”

Coun Paul Kelly said: “I believe there are conflicts for members between local representation and their role on a quasi-judicial planning committee – and there always will be.”

“The move to 2pm meetings is not intended to cut out the public and I can tell you the chamber is usually jammed full. Whatever you do is not going to suit everybody as their timetable is different to ours.”

As part of the review, it was agreed to recommend to full council that the number of planning committees is reduced from three to two, although rights of way will be dealt with separately by a new committee.

Generally, the two committees will both be able to deal with any applications, in order to spread the workload, but the likes of major energy and infrastructure proposals will still be dealt with by the strategic planning committee.