'Deplorable' ban on hearing residents' views at planning visits to stay

July 25 2020
'Deplorable' ban on hearing residents' views at planning visits to stay

RESIDENTS will continue to be prevented from speaking during council visits to contentious planning sites, despite pleas from parish councillors.

Site inspections allow members of South Gloucestershire Council planning committees to become better informed before deciding on a planning application.

Until 2018, residents and developers were able to have a say at these visits.

But they were excluded under a raft of changes to the planning system introduced by the Conservative-led council in September of that year.

A review of the current system found developers broadly supported it – but parish and town councils felt it limited residents’ opportunity to influence planning.

Pucklechurch Parish Council told the review: “On the face of it, the system appears to have been to deliberately set up to deny ordinary people the opportunity to speak in person, and this is to be deplored.”

Members of South Gloucestershire Council agreed to make six changes to planning processes based on the review – but changing the arrangements for site visits was not one of them.

Stoke Gifford parish councillor Andrew Shore said the new changes were a step in the right direction but continued to “favour the interests of developers”.

Residents’ contributions at site meetings can be “invaluable”, the Conservative member told a virtual meeting on July 15.

Opposition members of the council argued it was “crucial” to allow members of the public to speak at site visits, as it was one of the only ways for people without computers to get involved in the planning process.

But council leader Toby Savage said site visits were a “phony opportunity”, as they came too late in the process and earlier opportunities, such as at parish and town council meetings, were a more “meaningful” way for the public to participate.

A report to the meeting noted no other local authorities in the region allow the public to speak at site inspections and the Local Government Association said site visits “should not be used as a lobbying opportunity”.

Cabinet member for planning Steve Reade said the review showed the changes made in 2018 had been a “success”.

Since then, the number of site visits had fallen by 56 per cent, and 45 per cent fewer planning applications had required a decision by a planning committee.

The annual number of planning meetings rose from 24 to 25, but the increase was due to extra meetings to establish three new planning committees to replace the two area planning committees that previously existed, according to the report.

Under the current system, decisions made by the development management and strategic sites delivery committees that go against officer recommendations are automatically referred to a higher committee, the spatial planning committee, for fresh deliberation.

From next month, when the new changes are adopted, decisions on applications for minor developments – those with nine or fewer homes – will no longer be reconsidered by the higher committee if they conflict with officers’ advice.

The council has promised to provide more advice for residents on its website about how to engage earlier in the planning process.

Parish and town councillors will also have their own five-minute speaking slot at planning meetings so members of the public have more time to speak.

By Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporting Service