Planning shake-up is proposed

Planning services in Northumberland could be in line for a radical shake-up

Northumberland County Council is proposing a fundamental review of its planning department to encourage growth.

It would replace three geographically-based planning committees with countywide ones, reduce the number of applications determined by committee, and take steps to improve the authority’s appeal record.

There would be a structured approach to delivering infrastructure and services through the Community Infrastructure Levy and legal agreements with developers.

And the council aims to improve public access to the service.

Policy Board Member for Planning Allan Hepple said: “A high performing and proactive service, planning is critical to the successful delivery of the ambitious housing and economic growth plans we have for the county.

“It is only by delivering our growth plans that Northumberland can be confident of a sustainable and prosperous future.

“The service has been under tremendous pressure since seven local authorities were joined together in 2009 and I am now determined to oversee a step change in performance to meet our ambitions for the future.”

However, Morpeth Town Council Planning Committee Chairman Joan Tebbutt said she has serious concerns.

“The main thing that rings alarm bells is about less applications going to committee because that reduces the democratic process,” she said.

“The countywide committees I find worrying because councillors will be expected to travel all over the county, which is going to be expensive, and it means that instead of deciding applications in a part they know well, they are going to have to make decisions for areas they don’t know.

“I do welcome the plans for infrastructure. The development of houses and economic provision, leisure facilities, schools, sewerage and roads is a package that must be planned together.”

The proposed changes follow a review by auditor Deloitte, which Coun Tebbutt says raises further concerns.

“They are complaining about low attendance by committee members on site visits and propose countywide committees. How is that going to increase attendance?” she said. “They say that parish and town councils are not statutory consultees and should not be able to trigger a referral to committee for an application. It is the parishes that know the areas and if we can’t trigger something going to committee we are in a bad place.”

The proposals will go through the county’s scrutiny process next month, before being considered by its Policy Board.