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Opinion: More Thought Is Required Before Reducing the Size of the Planning Committee

Published on: 1 Apr, 2017
Updated on: 4 Apr, 2017

By Gordon Bridger

Hon Alderman and former Mayor of Guildford

The sudden appearance of proposals to reduce the Guildford Borough Council Planning Committee from 23 members to 12 or 15 is worrying. They have been put forward, it is said, in order to make the committee more efficient.

Most people dealing with planning will be puzzled by this as the well known  problems are: delays within the planning department, failure to have a proper Local Plan and central government dithering over housing  targets and green belt use.

The decision to allow the ten or seven of the 22 council wards, who will not have representation, to speak on applications in their areas for three minutes is welcome but will nullify any time saving effect of reduced numbers on the committee,  a rather poor trade off.

The allocation of the 12 or 15 places is to be based, proportionally, on the current political make up of the council. This too is odd as Planning Committee decisions should not be made on political grounds.

The real conflicts are between those who are pro or anti development which tends to be reflected, in some quarters, as an urban v. rural clash.

The important question is who is going to decide which wards are to be directly represented and on what grounds? The criteria for choosing must be made known. Those wards to be denied direct representation will want an answer.

I understand that the increase to a 20 letter threshold for sizeable projects to be brought in committee has been abandoned. If true, this is a good decision.

What also needs to be abandoned is the very odd  proposal that councillors should not read out prepared statements as this could be interpreted as “predetermination”.

This confusing and almost impossible term has frightened, unjustly, many councillors for many years from saying anything about a planning application until they hear the planning officers’ views in committee.

This implies that planning councillors do not have the ability to know that they need to abide by policies and guidelines which apply to planning – which is of course quite untrue.

This “stifling” has been heavily criticised in the government’s Localism Report which it would appear that council advisers have not read.  This report encourages open debate and assures councillors they will not be, “be liable to prosecution even if they had a closed mind”- a rather odd phrase.

The criteria for choosing must be made known. Those wards to be denied direct representation will want an answer.

Anyway, why reading a written statement should not be allowed defies common sense. Surely, in a complex case, a councillor should not face a memory test. They should be free to prepare by writing down what they want to say. It does not mean that they cannot change their vote in the light of other contributions.

The Review of the Localism Act clearly states that councillors must be free to speak, give their views and they need to be aware that their support and votes are  determined by council planning policies and guidelines. Not a difficult task.

Of course developers and planning bureaucrats would love this restriction. However, as always used to be the case, until lawyers discovered the term “predetermination”, councillors at meetings would have to justify their votes by stating the relevant planning reason that supported their decision. Officers could and should guide them if mistaken.

Planning decisions are among the most important taken by our council. They must be fair and seen to be fair.

If the predetermination argument is taken too far it could mean that anyone involved in discussing policies or plans which could lead to a planning application has to be debarred from serving on the planning committee and all members on the Planning Committee having to withdraw from prior associated debates.

This absurd situation actually occurred at the borough council over G Live when the entire planning committee had to withdraw from the chamber for the debate. It was a ridiculous situation which the Localism Act condemns. Councillors and officers really should read it.

Planning decisions are among the most important taken by our council. They must be fair and seen to be fair.

However well intentioned, cutting back the Planning Committee, in the way proposed, might be seen as a way to help those, in favour of developments, outlined in the draft Local Plan, get their own way.

More thought is required before a decision on this important proposal is taken by full council on April 11.

See also: Councillors Disagree Over Proposed Planning Committee Changes

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test 2 Responses to Opinion: More Thought Is Required Before Reducing the Size of the Planning Committee

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    March 30, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Alderman Bridger’s opinion is well put. I too have severe reservations on this change and can see no reason for it save to make the whole process less democratic and anti Neighbourhood Plan. The Executive could ignore the plan and pass a non compliant development purely to prove they are in control.

  2. Gordon Bridger Reply

    March 31, 2017 at 8:19 am

    On reflection I should have been clearer on the the key numbers impact of a reduction of members allowed to vote.There would be a loss of eight members. The Guildford Greenbelt Group and Labour would retain one member, the Liberal Democrats would lose two of their five and Conservatives would loose six of their sixteen.

    One suspects that Conservative and Liberals will want to know, as indeed the public would, on what grounds and by whom they have been deselected? Did officers consider this in their search for “efficiency”? The Planning Committee is the most high profile committee and one most subject to public concern so selection of public representatives on it must be clear and fair.

    But I have a much fairer and more democratic solution. Restrict all 23 members to 3 minutes intervention. Fairer and more “efficient”.

    In fact, why not go further and suggest that this brilliant idea of timing interventions should be extended to all council committees? It would cut out waffle. One could allow important councillors say six minutes. Think of the huge efficiency savings the council could make.

    Officers should be asked to work out the efficiency saving of this brilliant idea to the council as a whole.

    Gordon Bridger is an Hon Alderman and former Mayor of Guildford.

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