A major transformation of Northumberland’s planning service was approved by the policy board this morning and will be voted on by all councillors in three weeks’ time.
As previously reported, the review comes following a report by the council’s external auditors Deloitte, along with other reviews carried out by the Planning Officers Society Enterprises (POSE), part of the Planning Advisory Service.
We seem to be in an almighty hurryJeff Reid, Liberal Democrat group leader
The planning service has been under increasing pressure to improve performance and meet Government targets and it has been acknowledged that the council must take action to enable a step change in the service. Failure to do this could result in Government intervention, and ultimately planning decisions being taken out of the council’s hands.
Some of the key recommendations of the Deloitte report are the creation of two countywide planning committees, instead of the three geographical committees and the countywide committee; the cessation of the automatic referral to committee following a response from town and parish councils that is contrary to officer recommendation; the removal of the trigger relating to numbers of letters of objection/support (currently five).
A large number of town and parish councils had raised concerns about the loss of local knowledge and views in the determination process and related issues, but according to council leader Grant Davey today, this was due to misinformation and following a recent meeting, there was more understanding of the issues and less concern. While the automatic trigger may be removed, there is no proposal to exclude town and parish councils from the planning process. They will continue to be informed of planning applications and any comments made will be taken into account.
Introducing the recommendations at the meeting, Coun Allan Hepple, policy board member for planning, housing and regeneration, said: “It’s critical to get this planning system in Northumberland right. It’s crucial because economic development requires new homes. Improving the planning service is not optional because otherwise we risk Government intervention.”
Conservative group leader Peter Jackson has previously raised concerns about the proposals being ‘so wide-ranging and potentially damaging to local participation in the planning process’.
Today, he reiterated these concerns and referred to some of the other recommendations in the POSE report. “There’s lots of things we could do and we don’t want to lose sight of that and focus on committee structure,” he said.
He was also worried about the committee meetings being moved from 6pm to 2pm, which would have an impact on working people attending. “I think it’s a step too far, it’s excluding a huge proportion of the public.”
He proposed deferring the decision until the consultation responses could be considered properly and an all-party working group be set up to look into the best way forward. Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid seconded the motion, but it failed as the Labour councillors voted against it.
Coun Reid said that the proposals risked damaging the relationship built up with town and parish councils over a number of years ‘in one fell swoop’. “I have never seen a response as big as this to anything we have ever asked town and parish councils,” he added.
“We are going at this as if there’s a deadline and I don’t think there’s a deadline,” he said. “Until I see a letter addressed to this council saying, ‘we have to do this or...’, I don’t think we are drinking in the last-chance saloon. All of us know there’s a problem and there’s quite a lot in the report we can agree on, but we seem to be in an almighty hurry.”