Concerns over planning review

Councillors and political campaigners believe a potential change to the planning system in Northumberland would be bad for local democracy.

An examination of the service is under way following a report by the county council’s external auditors Deloitte, along with other reviews carried out by the Planning Officers Society Enterprises.

The authority says that a shake-up is needed because its planning department has been under increasing pressure to improve performance and meet Government targets.

One of the issues being considered as part of the review is the triggers by which an application is referred to a planning committee, including whether or not objections by a town or parish council should be an automatic trigger.

This is happening at the moment, but Deloitte has highlighted the fact that while these councils can provide valuable local views on applications, they are not in fact a statutory consultee other than in very limited circumstances.

Among those with concerns if this procedure comes to an end is Pegswood parish councillor David Woodard.

He said: “It’s all about saving money in my view and if objections by parish and town councils no longer mean an application must go to a planning committee, it will have the effect of reducing democratic accountability.”

Morpeth town councillor Bob Robertson said: “Local councillors know their area extremely well and so if this change happens, it will be to the detriment of local communities.”

Two of the prospective parliamentary candidates for the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency have also commented.

Julie Pörksen (Liberal Democrats) said: “The proposals to remove the power of parish and town councils’ opinions on planning applications is a serious attack on local democracy and I urge all these local authorities in the county to object to them.”

Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Conservatives) said: “It is somewhat perverse that the county council is using the need to improve performance as some kind of justification for increasing the powers of officers to nod through important planning decisions under delegated authority.”

The proposals by county council officers are set to be initially considered by the communities and place overview and scrutiny committee on February 24.

Coun Allan Hepple, policy board member responsible for planning, said: “We welcome feedback from town and parish councils and will be discussing the issues with them in more depth at their forum next week.”