Planning ‘rights’ of ‘minimal importance to anyone at all’

Free Speech Charter signed by Tricia Youtan, Conservative, Itchingfield/Slinfold/Warnham HDC back in 2014 -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140904-110823001
Free Speech Charter signed by Tricia Youtan, Conservative, Itchingfield/Slinfold/Warnham HDC back in 2014 -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140904-110823001

Planning ‘rights’ taken from Horsham district residents, councillors, and parish councils are of ‘minimal importance to anyone at all’, according to one Tory.

Horsham District Council agreed to constitution changes last Wednesday (September 6), which remove the ability of certain so-called ‘minor’ proposals to be called in and discussed by the authority’s two planning committees in public.

This covers 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 now not automatically need to be approved by a planning committee.

Warnham resident Sheila White, who spoke in opposition to the proposals, said: “The changes include removal of the existing rights of councillors, parish and neighbourhood councils, and members of the public to call-in controversial applications.

“The call-in right has been used sparingly and judiciously over recent years, so there’s little to be gained by removing it.”

Ron Bates, speaking for the Horsham Society, asked why it was thought necessary to change a ‘well tried and tested process’.

Council officers said the modifications are required due to ambiguities that have arisen since a new constitution was agreed late last year.

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.

Several Tory and Lib Dem councillors argued that rights were being lost, but this was countered by several Tories who claimed no rights were being removed.

Tricia Youtan (Con, Itchingfield, Slinfold and Warnham), cabinet member for community and wellbeing, said: “This business of being concerned with democracy and losing whatever it is, our rights, is just absolutely wrong.

“I really do not see why we are discussing this at great length over something that has been explained quite clearly to be of minimal importance to anyone at all.”

A Governance Committee recommendation means that elected councillors can still call-in changes to section 106 legal agreements but residents and parish councils now cannot.

Meanwhile after a suggestion from Christian Mitchell (Con, Holbrook West), Brian O’Connell (Con, Henfield) proposed they continue to allow councillors to call-in tree preservation orders and works to trees in a conservation area.

This was agreed, but does not extend to parish councils or residents.

However a proposal put forward by Tony Hogben (Con, Denne) and seconded by Nigel Jupp (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley) to do the same for non-material amendments was defeated by the majority of councillors.

Mr Hogben described the current arrangements as a ‘safety net’, and felt the ‘democratic right’ of councillors, parish councils and residents to call-in these applications was being removed.

In response Jonathan Chowen (Con, Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead), deputy leader and cabinet member for culture and leisure, said that non-material changes are ‘not important changes’.

He added: “What would be undemocratic is if we put so many applications into a planning meeting, by the time you sat there for three or four hours, ticking off all these minor ones, which then triggers members of the public to pop in and have a few minutes’ discussion about it, which I’m not saying they shouldn’t but these are minor amendments, but by the time you get to the end of your council meeting, half of you would have fallen asleep, and the other half would have gone home in disgust. Now that is not democracy.”

He added: “I can’t understand how Councillor Jupp has seconded this. The main thing that jumped into my mind is why and I could not think of any decent reason.”

Officers pointed out that non-material amendments had to be determined within 28 days otherwise they would automatically be allowed.

Michael Willett (Con, Steyning), chairman of the Governance Committee, argued the changes would mean officers would deal with less controversial matters, allowing the planning committees to concentrate on applications of ‘greater significance’

He suggested the council had to strike the right balance as they ran the risk of ‘unnecessary delays’, which could result in non-determination appeals.

He said they were not taking away rights, but this was the council trying to be more effective.

Without the changes to the constitution they would ‘bog ourselves down’ with minor applications such as approving the shade of bricks or the size of tiles, adding: “All applications would have to go to committee and we would grind to a halt.”

However Mr Mitchell pointed out that nobody was saying they would all come to committee, but they should retain the ‘right to ask or insist that it does come to committee’.

Chris Lyons, director for planning, economic development and property, explained that a non-material amendment can only be something ‘de minimis’ that ‘does not have an effect on anybody’.

If an application did have an impact, it would became a minor material amendment so ‘it’s not something that can be controversial’.

Brian Donnelly (Con, Pulborough and Coldwaltham), cabinet member for finance and assets, called the changes a ‘small minor administrative adjustment’ due to an error in ‘constitutional protocol’ and there was an ‘incorrect belief that the democratic process and that rights are being removed’.

Mr O’Connell said he did not ‘see what the fuss is all about’, adding: “This is getting blown out of all proportion, nobody’s rights are being taken away. It was never in the constitution until 2012.

“It’s in the new constitution now because of an error.”

But David Skipp (LDem, Horsham Park), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “Actually there are exemptions to what I can do. Now if that’s taking away my right to actually go along and put in a request for something to be heard at committee then I think that’s important.

“And it’s all very well saying these are minor applications and well it’s going to clog up the system, we know that as far as we are aware that we are only looking at one or two of these every year.

“How do one or two a year clog up the system?”

Dr Skipp added: “I think we are on a very slippery slope here. It can be brushed under the carpet, it can be said to be not relevant, but actually we are losing some of our democratic rights as councillors and as parish councillors as well.”

Toni Bradnum (Con, Nuthurst) added: “This gradual shift of responsibility from members to offices leaves me wondering what we are here for.

“I do not think I was elected to rubber stamp something someone else has decided.”

But Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West), vice chairman of the council, said: “I think any concern that we are going to lose our powers or hide things away is not correct.

“If there’s something the public or parish councils or we ourselves do not like, we will make sure it’s heard by the council in public.”

During her speech Mrs White referred to a case where HDC had applied for a non-material amendment to reduce the size of multi-use games areas proposed south of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre.

Since the change would have brought them below Sport England’s standard, leisure centre users objected, and officers’ revised the application so that the size of only one was reduced.

This application was called to committee because of the number of objections, but under the revised constitution this would not be possible.

HDC was asked to comment on why the application was classed as a non-material amendment.

A spokesman said: “As the director explained at council, it is not possible to prescribe what is and is not a non-material minor amendment and therefore a professional judgement must be made by the council’s officers in each case. That was done in the case referred to.”

The council also confirmed that in cases such as works to a TPO and works to trees in a conservation areas, residents could contact their councillor to raise concerns and elected members could consider if the case should be referred to one of the two planning committees.