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Letter: The Pre-determination Issue Does Still Remain

Published on: 27 Apr, 2016
Updated on: 27 Apr, 2016

planning permission 200From Fiona White

Lib Dem county councillor for Guildford West

In response to Gordon Bridger’s recent letter:  I Repeat, Councillors Can Speak Freely on Planning Applications, Mr Bridger is right, to a degree, in that the draconian threats of personal liability to Planning Committee members no longer apply.

The coalition government changed the planning guidelines so that councillors were not liable to personal prosecution or damages if they spoke out about an application before it came to committee.

However, the issue of councillors making up their minds before the meeting and before they have listened to planning advice, “pre-determination”, still remains.

The risk is that if councillors have made a commitment before the meeting and then they vote on an application, a developer who does not get the result they want can appeal on pre-determination grounds.

emails letterImagine a situation where the Planning Committee turned down a major planning application which had implications for the immediate surroundings, or even for a whole area, which was then appealed on the basis that not all members who voted went to the meeting with an open mind.

Imagine an even worse situation where a planning inspector based many miles from Guildford then decided that, because of government policies in favour of development, the decision would be overturned and permission granted.

Cllr Caroline Reeves made it clear in her letter that she has followed the comments on the Solum application very carefully. As a member of the Planning Committee, she has to keep an open mind until the meeting where the committee report and officers’ advice will be given before voting.

As a further reassurance, from my nearly 20 years as a member of Guildford’s Planning Committee, as well as time spent on the Planning and Regulatory Committee of Surrey County Council, I know very well that councillors do not blindly follow officer recommendations.

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Responses to Letter: The Pre-determination Issue Does Still Remain

  1. Gordon Bridger Reply

    April 29, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    I am delighted to read that Cllr Fiona White [SCC Guildford West] agrees with me that councillors can “speak freely on planning applications”. I assume that the days when legal advisers forced Planning Committee councillors to leave the chamber, when policy issues which might affect a planning applications, are gone. I had hoped councillors would be pleased to hear this good news, endorsed by a government department and by the leader of the council

    The government advice expressly states: “in some cases councillors have been warned off campaigning with constituents or publicly expressing public views on issues for fear of being accused of bias”. This is not acceptable. These sort of warnings are no longer justified.

    However we appear to disagree whether “councillors must await a planning officer’s decision before commenting on an application”. Councillors are perfectly entitled to make their views known before meetings, though obviously the only valid decision is the one made at the Planning Committee. Councillors need to listen to the advice given by officers and may well change their mind as result. Fair enough.

    It is really not that complicated but has been made so by the introduction of the confusing term “pre-determination” over which lawyers have had a field day.

    For example as far as the Solumn application is concerned Planning Committee councillors could publicly state that they cannot support it, “as it is out of scale and character “, which is a good acceptable planning term (actually it is the worst development I have seen in the last 50 years).

    If at the Planning Committee officers can persuade them otherwise, so be it, but they do not have to accept the officers’ advice if they disagree on planning grounds (I won several cases, against officer advice, which went to appeal). Provided at committee a councillor puts forward planning reasons for their decision pre-determination is not an issue.

    I do hope Planning Committee councillors will, in future, be confident enough to act on government advice and appreciate they have new freedoms. A copy of my report can be obtained free on request.

    Gordon Bridger is a former councillor.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    April 30, 2016 at 9:10 am

    This pre-determination thing is winding me up – just a little. Councillors are elected to represent the people not the planning officers tainted by professional views.

    Surely if a councillor has expertise in the area, say knowledge of flooding, and traffic problems, this decision needs no ‘planning officer advice’ to tell the councillor that placing a road in an active flood plain for example is wrong.

    I think it is time to stop trying to macro control the councillors and let them think for themselves. Just let them use a little common sense.

  3. Gordon Bridger Reply

    May 1, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    Believe it or not, for several years now GBC legal officers have been telling councillors that they must not say a word to the public about a planning application until planning officers have pronounced – otherwise they could be accused of predetermining it. All power to officers.

    Even if the application was clearly in conflict with policy or guidelines councillors were warned of the dangers of commenting.

    It became so absurd that when policy issues were discussed which might affect Planning Committee councillor’s judgements they had to withdraw, so as not to be influenced. So there were occasions when 23 councillors had to leave the chamber when discussing, say, the new G Live.

    The Localism Bill drew attention to this absurd situation – but it still carried on as GBC legal advisers ignored advice. An extraordinary situation.

    With Planning England advice, and council leader Paul Spooner’s sensible acceptance of it, one hopes that councillors will now feel free to comment.

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