Planning changes reduce ‘democratic safety net’

Parkside
Parkside

Plans to stop certain council applications from being discussed by the authority’s own planning committees have been critisised as reducing the ‘democratic safety net’.

If the changes are agreed to Horsham District Council’s constitution tonight (Wednesday September 6) they would remove the ability of certain so-called ‘minor’ proposals to be called in by councillors, members of the public, or parish councils.

This would cover items such as non-material amendments, tree preservation orders, and modifications to legal agreements with developers.

These minor applications submitted by the council itself would not automatically need to be approved by a planning committee.

According to opponents the proposals, presented to HDC’s Governance Committee last month (Wednesday August 16), fall ‘way short’ of justifying the decision to diminish checks and balances in the planning system.

Council officers said the modifications are required due to ambiguities that have arisen since a new constitution was agreed, but during the meeting it was suggested the purpose was to reduce the number of unnecessary items going to committee.

However the need for the changes was questioned given the relatively small number of cases they would affect.

Ron Bates, speaking for the Horsham Society, said: “Overall the main objection is the removal of the right of the electorate, the parish council, and the councillors to have planning applications referred to committee for a decision.

“Why is it thought necessary to remove the well tried and tested processes and remove the opportunity of the residents of Horsham district to have their say on these matters?”

Chris Lyons, director for planning, economic development, and property, explained how the changes had been prompted by member feedback and ‘not something I’m up to’.

He added: “What we are really trying to do is change the constitution so everybody is clear that of the applications in front of you which would and would not come to committee.”

However any of the applications in question can still be presented to the planning committees, but only if the council’s head of development decides it is necessary.

Michael Willett (Con, Steyning), chairman of the Governance Committee, was one of several members who described the officers’ report as ‘quite difficult to read’.

He said: “What we are trying to do is not get bogged down with minor details. We need to concentrate on what is significant and if we look at everything we will miss what’s important and significant.”

The report was withdrawn from the last Governance Committee meeting in July.

In it officers said that the ‘previous scheme of delegation differentiated between planning applications and minor applications’.

But in a subsequent email Ann-Maria Brown, interim monitoring officer at HDC, concluded some of the information included in the report was ‘not accurate’.

Addressing the committee last Wednesday, Rudgwick resident Sue Kornykcy said: “The checks and balances of the planning process are much valued by the community, especially when having a planning decision referred to a committee of elected members and with an opportunity to speak.

“These rights should only be diminished with strong justification, clear and compelling evidence and after due consultation. This proposal falls way, way short.”

She suggested the officers’ report did not even offer a reason for the changes, but instead ‘hides behind a convoluted argument regarding constitution wordings’.

Mrs Kornycky added: “The changes would not only reduce the scope of ‘in house’ applications automatically coming before committee, but they would also block the democratic safety net whereby members, parish council and sufficient residents could invoke a committee hearing if their views differed from those of the planning officer.

“In summary, a watering down of the sound principle that committee scrutiny is necessary for ‘in house’ applications and/or when triggered by the community or its representatives, would be a significant degradation of long established local democratic rights.”

Fellow Rudgwick resident Paul Kornycky added: “There is absolutely no justification on any of these so-called minor applications to block the ‘democratic safety net’.

“If they really are ‘minor’ then the number of times that a member/parish council/public invoke committee determination will be few and far between. It should be left intact.”

But Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West), vice chairman of the council, described how the planning committees were getting applications ‘we really do not need to see and that’s why this is being pushed forward’.

He added: “There is a feeling that we are trying to restrict, we are trying to cut things back, we are trying to prevent councillors or the public from putting their views forward, and I would just like to say I do not think this is the intention at all.

“Actually we are making the system more open.”

But Toni Bradnum (Con, Nuthurst) said she had never complained about the length of planning committee agendas as she saw that as part of her responsibility as a councillor.

She added: “I think we have to remember what we are here for. We are here to represent the residents. We must be democratic and accountable.

“I do not like this gradual shift of responsibility from us as councillors to officers.”

She though the current system was ‘perfectly acceptable as it is’, adding: “Every application is relevant and important to someone and that is the point.”

Mrs Bradnum continued: “There are very few that come to committee in any event. I do not think it’s too onerous to deal with what some people might call minor.”

Meanwhile David Skipp (LDem, Horsham Park), leader of the Lib Dem group at HDC, suggested it would be wrong in cases where residents did have objections to discourage or prevent them from raising them in a public forum.

Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar) raised particular concerns about the specific changes to the way section 106 agreements and non-material amendments would be handled.

He suggested some of the things to be dealt with by officers ‘should be committee matters and committee matters only’.

After loud applause, Mr Willett said: “You should not really be applauding. It’s not that sort of meeting.”

One audience member replied: “We are not here for the fun of it.”

Dr Lyons explained that non-material amendments were ‘not defined definitively’.

Claire Vickers (Con, Southwater), cabinet member for planning and development, called the proposed changes to the constitution ‘perfectly reasonable’.

She said: “I understand what our duties are as councillors, and I also understand all the concerns that have been expressed about taking away some of our rights.

“This is not what it’s about. This is simplifying really minor considerations.”

Dr Lyons said they would ‘not try and sneak through’ changes to things such as section 106 agreements, and the majority of modifications were merely drafting changes.

Mrs Vickers said this would provide reassurance that for major sites section 106 changes would come back to committee.

One member of the public said: “No it won’t, do not speak for us.”

David Coldwell (Con, Bramber, Upper Beeding and Woodmancote) suggested they could withdraw the clause on section 106 agreements, but supported the changes to non-material amendments.

He said: “If you are considering very very small minor amendments you are opening the door to every single application being called in and brought to committee.”

The committee agreed to leave councillors with the ability to call-in changes to section 106 legal agreements.