Currently all planning applications submitted by Horsham District Council (including those from officers and councillors) to its own Planning Department have to be determined by a Planning Committee comprising elected councillors.
This extra visibility and scrutiny seems only right and proper as HDC is clearly both ‘judge and jury’ for its ‘own’ applications.
So what are we to make of HDC proposing that some of these ‘in house’ applications would now bypass Planning Committees and be determined solely by unelected planning officers, behind closed doors?
Also, there are currently strict rules that force any planning applications that are ‘contentious’ to a Planning Committee hearing. Councillors, parish councils or residents (eight or more public representations needed) can invoke referral to a Planning Committee.
Again HDC is proposing that certain types of application will be exempt from these long established procedures, regardless of the representations made.
HDC is trying to ‘fob us off’ with the statement that these rule modifications will only apply to ‘minor applications’ and will thereby improve operational efficiency. Oh, really? Let’s consider a couple of possibilities.
1. HDC applies to itself to fell some trees in Horsham Park. The trees are subject to Tree Preservation Orders, but the planning officer is recommending approval. Under the proposed new rules, this would be classified as a ‘minor application’ and so would not automatically go before Committee as an ‘in house’ application.
Worse, even if the elected councillor for that local Ward or the Neighbourhood Council ‘strongly objected’, or there were ‘hundreds’ of public objections, the Planning Director would not be obliged to have the application determined by Committee. The planning officers could just do as they wished without any proper democratic accountability.
2. Liberty Property Trust applies to modify the 18 per cent Affordable Homes requirement (North of Horsham strategic development) which is written into a S106 legal agreement. Due to it alleging a worsened financial viability it wants it reduced to 12 per cent, i.e. another 165 Affordable Homes lost!
Under the new rules, this would be classified as a ‘minor application’; again meaning that the Planning Director could agree this change without it having to justify it in front of an open Planning Committee meeting.
Do these seem like ‘minor applications’ to you? It sounds to me like another example of this council systematically removing the proper democratic checks and balances that have been in place for many years and served us all so well.
Remember that this council has recently blocked the practice established over at least the last 15 years whereby residents could freely attend a council meeting and ask a pre-notified question.
Now it’s only allowed if it fits the council agenda of the night. Your agenda is now deemed unworthy, unless it complements theirs! In any other District/Borough Council of West Sussex you would be able to attend and personally ask your ‘unconstrained’ question, listen to the answer, and then follow-up. Not any more in Horsham District!
We can only hope that principled councillors will see through these proposals. They are not driven by ‘efficiency’; they are seemingly driven by an obsession with ‘control’ and should be exposed as exactly what they are: ‘anti-democratic’.
So, please lobby your Parish Council and/or District Councillor and help to protect these important democratic rights.
But don’t delay, apparently the intention is to rush these changes through at a Council Meeting on 6th September. Why? Just what’s coming down the road?
Cox Green, Rudgwick