Fresh councillor fears over planning changes

County planning chiefs have defended the major shake-up to the system that is being proposed.

The development management service at Northumberland County Council believes that further changes need to be made in order to improve the speed and quality of its decisions.

A range of measures have been put forward following a report by the county council’s external auditors Deloitte, along with other reviews carried out by the Planning Officers Society Enterprises.

One of them is to remove the automatic trigger currently in place for the referral of an application to a planning committee when objections are made by a town or parish council, as they are not statutory consultees.

Many of these authorities across the county are unhappy with this recommendation – they claim it would be bad for local democracy. And some of the other proposals have also come in for criticism.

They include removing the committee trigger where five or more letters of support or objection contrary to officer recommendation are supplied by members of the public and moving from the three area planning committees to two county-wide committees, which would deal with strategic and non-strategic applications respectively.

These measures were described by Coun David Parker as ‘simply outrageous’ at a meeting of Morpeth Town Council’s planning and transport committee last week.

A report by Karen Ledger, head of planning and housing at Northumberland County Council, says that some of the matters identified in the reviews have already been implemented and they are making a positive difference, but modernising the committee structure and scheme of delegation is ‘crucial to ensuring sound decision making on planning applications and to delivering improved and sustained performance’.

And at a meeting of the council’s communities and place overview and scrutiny committee on Tuesday, she said: “We view parish and town councils as important consultees. They would still be consulted on all planning applications and their comments will continue to be taken into account.

“The views of residents are also very important and where there are significant concerns in local communities about an application, I will certainly be recommending that it should go before committee.”

The deadline for parish and town council responses has been extended to March 1 and scrutiny member Veronica Jones asked to delay any recommendations from the committee until members have read all of them. The vote was four all, but chairman Brian Gallacher, who was against the amendment, had the casting vote.

Coun Wayne Daley raised concerns about the proposed planning committee restructure and moving the meeting start times from 6pm to 2pm, saying: “It’s scandalous that some members of the public would have to take half a day off work to speak in favour or against an application and this would also make things difficult for councillors who work.”

He suggested a cross party task group to look into these two issues and the committee agreed to set one up. It will report its findings next month.