Controversial changes to the planning system in Northumberland have now come into effect.
And the number of signatures required for a petition about a local issue to be considered by an area committee has gone up from ten to 50 after various recommendations were agreed by a majority vote at a full meeting of the county council.
Following a critical review of the planning service by Deloitte, the authority’s external auditors, the Labour-led administration put forward a range of proposals, including removing the ability of town and parish councils to automatically refer any application to committee.
The area planning committees are no longer in place – all major applications will be determined by the new strategic planning body of councillors. The planning and rights of way and planning and performance committees will consider minor and other bids.
Meetings will start at 2pm and they will mainly be held at County Hall. They can take place in the local area of an application in exceptional circumstances at the committee chairman’s discretion.
Although any county councillor will be able to refer applications within 21 days of them appearing on the weekly list, if based on valid planning reasons, and parish and town councils can still put forward their views, it is expected that more proposals will be determined by planning officers under delegated powers.
Councillors in the Conservative group raised concerns at various meetings when the changes were being discussed.
Group leader Peter Jackson said: “Local input into Northumberland’s planning system has been lost in a county where the identity of each part of our county is valued and different.
“Too much power has been given to unaccountable planning officers, who will be making decisions affecting people’s lives for reasons which will not be transparent or accountable.”
Of the 2pm start time for meetings, he added that this would make it “difficult for ordinary working people and for people with families to be able to attend these meetings to make their views heard”.
County council leader Grant Davey said: “The changes to planning committees were made following recommendations by Deloitte and the Planning Officers Society, aimed at improving efficiency and performance of the service.
“A cross party working group considered this in detail and agreed with the changes (following a vote).”
As well as the alteration for local issues, the qualifying number of signatures threshold for petitions about corporate, budgetary or county-wide issues – to be considered by the petitions committee – has increased from ten to 100.
Coun Jackson said this was an example of the council administration being happy to “openly discriminate against the many smaller communities which make up our county”.
Coun Davey said: “If a petition falls short, residents have a range of other ways of raising their concerns, such as through their local member or via council officers, and they will be flagged to senior officers in relevant services for their attention.
“The changes have been made to take into account that petitions are a way for a significant number of people to raise a common concern.”