Long way to go on review of Northumberland’s planning system

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Northumberland County Council has outlined further details of the recently-launched review of its planning service, which is already causing controversy and sparking criticism.

Speculation about proposals and the impact of the review have caused concern and the council’s lead executive director Steven Mason has also provided clarification on some of these issues this week.

As previously reported by the Gazette, the review comes following a report by the council’s external auditors Deloitte, along with other reviews carried out by the Planning Officers Society Enterprises (POSE), part of the Planning Advisory Service.

Twenty-one recommendations from the review were accepted last week by the council’s audit committee, a cross-party group which includes co-opted independent representatives. A full report on future proposals is now being prepared.

The planning service has been under increasing pressure to improve performance and meet Government targets and it has been acknowledged that the council must take action to enable a step change in the service. Failure to do this could result in Government intervention, and ultimately planning decisions being taken out of the council’s hands.

A review is now under way, and proposals for the future are scheduled to be considered by the communities and place scrutiny committee on Tuesday, February 24, the policy board on Tuesday, March 10, and the full council in April.

Key issues that are being addressed by the review are: Improving the performance in dealing with applications in a timely manner; improving the quality of decision making and minimising the scope for successful appeals and legal challenge from applicants; ensuring that the service meets the national standards that prevent Government intervention; delivering a customer focused service; and

making the most efficient use of limited resources.

One of the issues being considered as part of the review is the triggers by which an application is referred to a planning committee. The council is reviewing whether objections by a town or parish council should be an automatic trigger for an application to go to committee. Deloitte has highlighted the fact that while parish and town councils can provide valuable local views on applications, they are not in fact a statutory consultee, other than in very limited circumstances.

The council is writing to all town and parish councils to provide further information about the review and the proposals for the future – as well as meeting with a forum of local councils to discuss this issue.

Lead executive director Steven Mason said: “The Deloitte report highlighted some significant issues within the planning services that we must address, and a step change has to take place in the way the service operates. New procedures will of course allow all views to be taken into account when making decisions – but those decisions must be on sound planning reasons, or they won’t stand up to scrutiny.

“As well as running an effective and efficient service, it is important for the council to be able to allow development within the county. All applications will still considered against national and local planning policies, and take planning issues into account, but they must be objective and robust.”

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Berwick, has contacted Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and called upon him to intervene in relation to the Labour’s administration’s proposed changes to the county’s planning system, describing them as ‘entirely at odds with the Government’s localism agenda’.

She said: “Northumberland County Council has one of the worst performing planning services in the country. It is somewhat perverse that they are now using this as some kind of justification for increasing the power of officers to nod through important planning decisions under delegated authority.

“At the same time, they are seeking to extinguish the power of town and parish councils to object to applications and ensure that they are decided upon, and considered fully, by democratically-elected local representatives.”