South Cambridgeshire MP says 'democracy must be preserved in planning decisions'
The MP for South Cambridgeshire has weighed in on a dispute over the council’s planning process, joining calls for greater democratic accountability.
The Liberal Democrat administration on South Cambridgeshire District Council is proposing to change the way planning decisions are delegated to either elected councillors or to planning officers.
The Lib Dems’ policy, if passed today will switch the authority to decide away from the chairman of the planning committee, an elected councillor, to the director of the planning service, a council officer, in the council’s constitution.
The change follows a legal challenge by a residents’ campaign group, the Fews Lane Consortium, which argued in the High Court that the old system, where the chairman of planning ultimately had the final say, was unlawful.
Conservative Anthony Browne has voiced support for his party colleagues on the council, who are putting forward a “call-in” process as an alternative option.
It would give ward councillors and parish councils the power to bring controversial planning applications before a public planning committee and be voted on by elected councillors.
Mr Browne said: “While I understand the need for changes to the Scheme of Delegation, democracy must be preserved at the heart of the planning system.
"The scale and scope of development in South Cambridgeshire is a matter of great interest and concern to local residents and planning decision makers should be willing to face public scrutiny and accountability.
"Elected representatives must therefore have the ultimate say about which planning applications should be determined by the planning committee.
“Residents need to have faith that their voices will be heard in a meaningful way. An automatic call-in process offers a sensible compromise, allowing the views of local people to be represented through their parish and district councillors, alongside expert planning guidance from council officers.”
The lead cabinet member for planning, councillor Tumi Hawkins, said: “Since the previous Conservative administration changed the rules in 2016, parish councils do not have an automatic right to refer applications to the planning committee for decision.
"This change has been the source of significant comment from some parish councils. Planning officers must always have full regard to material comments on applications, and we do try to take the most significant and the most controversial applications to committee for decision.”
Cllr Hawkins said the council began a “wholesale review” of the constitution when it took over in 2018 which is “nearly complete”. This review will take on board the views of residents and parish councils, she said.
She added: “As well as being as transparent as possible, it needs to be legally sound and robust enough to cope with the volume of applications that we deal with.
“We have commissioned a review from the independent Planning Advisory Services.
"Although this has unfortunately been delayed by the coronavirus crisis, the hope is that the review will quickly be able to get underway.
"As part of the review, we will be consulting fully with all interested parties, especially our parish councils, which have a key contribution to getting good planning decisions.”
More by this authorBen Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter