South Cambs opposition propose alternative planning delegation system
There ought to be a democratic lever in South Cambridgeshire to bring planning decisions to public committees, the Conservative opposition has said.
The district council’s system for delegating authority to decide planning applications – either to officers or to elected councillors – was challenged in the High Court by a residents’ campaign group, the Fews Lane Consortium, earlier this year.
Previously the decision was taken by the chairman of the planning committee, on advice from the director of planning. In response to the legal challenge, the council has proposed the decision of whether or not a planning application is decided by a public committee will instead be made by the director of planning, with input from the chairman of the planning committee.
The move has been criticised by opposition councillors as officers “marking their own homework”.
The Conservative opposition group has now put forward its own proposals, ahead of a decision on the process at the full council’s meeting on May 21, where the Liberal Democrats are proposing the director of planning should take the responsibility of deciding if applications are decided by councillors or not, but in consultation with the chairman of the committee – an elected councillor.
The Conservatives want to see a “call in” system, whereby an objection from the councillor for the ward in which the development is proposed, or an objection from the parish council, would see the application automatically referred to the council’s planning committee to be decided by elected councillors.
Leader of the Conservative group, councillor Heather Williams, said the Liberal Democrat proposals “restrict the democratic input,” and, if implemented “will haunt us”.
District councillors will not only lose their authority, she said, but will have “given it away”.
Cllr Williams said: “As local councillors we see what affect planning has on our residents, the majority of my case work is in relation to planning.
“This is why it is crucial that parish councils have the opportunity to be as involved as possible in the planning process.
“It is only right that when applications are of significant importance to a parish that these applications are debated in an open way with the opportunity for the parish to make their views heard. The power of the planning agenda needs to be with elected representatives who are accountable to their local communities.
“With this in mind I will be making the case for an automatic call in process.”
The leader of the council, Councillor Bridge Smith, told parish councils earlier this year that the chairman of planning would have a veto under their plans for the director to delegate planning decisions to officers or the committee.
The chairman’s veto proposal was dropped after another legal challenge from a residents’ campaign group, the Fews Lane Consortium. The campaign group says it is looking for greater transparency and democratic accountability in the planning process.
The council’s lead cabinet member for planning, Cllr Tumi Hawkins, said: “It is vital that planning decisions by South Cambridgeshire District Council are made transparently taking into account all the views of those affected. Parish councils play a particularly important and valued role in this process.
“Since the previous Conservative administration changed the rules in 2016, parish councils do not have an automatic right to applications being referred 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.
“When the Liberal Democrats took over the council in 2018, we began a wholesale review of the constitution of the council, which is nearly complete. One of the issues that clearly needed further work was the question of who decides which planning applications go to committee. We have commissioned a review of this 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 help us find a much improved system. We will, of course, be consulting fully with all interested parties, including our parish councils.”
More by this authorBen Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter