I was a member and Vice Chairman of Castle Morpeth Planning Committee and also a member of the Northumberland National Park Planning Committee.
The training I received in order for me to fulfil those roles focused heavily upon the fact that a planning committee is unlike any other committee within the council because it retains semi-judicial status.
Information, advice and recommendations provided by officers, and the subsequent decisions of members, carry enormous responsibility.
Unfortunately, since the creation of the unitary authority in Northumberland, that responsibility appears to have become nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.
Any potential deviation by members from officers’ recommendations seems to result in members being berated. Where the outcome may be one of refusal against an officer recommendation for approval, the officer, more often than not, will state that should members refuse permission, the applicant will appeal and will win, thereby putting the council at risk of costs.
Such a comment should be unnecessary as members must have received training upon the implications of refusing an application before taking their seat on the committee.
Given the legal status of a planning committee, such a claim may be considered to be sub-judice, which is defined as “a rule limiting comment and disclosure relating to judicial proceedings in order not to prejudice the issue or influence the decision”.
How can an officer know the decision of a Government-appointed planning inspector? Is the result of an application and subsequent appeal predetermined, regardless of members? My understanding is that each application must be considered and decided upon its own merits.
If one looks around Northumberland, we can see developments that I believe should never have been approved. Where they have, the conditions imposed to control development and construction may be unenforceable.
It appears that new estates have been designed and approved for profit, not people.
To give an example, the Coquet View estate in Amble has inadequate car parking spaces, with cars having to park on pavements. The estate road is too narrow for two-way traffic and the lay-out often means you need to drive in reverse for some distance to exit cul-de-sacs.
Persimmon Homes closed the estate roads to put on the surface dressing. I was not aware that it had obtained the appropriate consent from Northumberland County Council. I was informed that the estate was still considered to be a building site and it did not need permission.
I did note that there were numerous contractors’ vehicles, plant, equipment and materials being used. All of the construction staff were wearing hi-visibility clothing and hard hats, in compliance with building site regulations. The children playing on the estate next to the roadworks were not.
One has to ask why the planning authority did not condition occupation of the houses until all construction work had been completed and people could move into an estate instead of a confirmed building site?
The Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy. The police investigation into the circumstances of the fire is going beyond the actual source. It is investigating the organisations and the decision-making process which left the building and residents vulnerable.
We are told to expect the possibility of charges of corporate and negligent manslaughter to be brought against the local authority, companies, and individuals involved in the decision-making process.
On that basis it may be that in the case of an incident which results in injury or damage as a result of a planning authority dismissing serious and foreseeable concerns it could rebound upon the decision-makers at a later date.
Perhaps this will mean members of the planning committee will make the decision on planning matters, not officers.