Grassroots councils want their voices to be heard

  • Proposals would completely overhaul planning system
  • Criticism that democracy and openness would be impacted
  • But council could lose powers if changes are not made

Town and parish councils from across Northumberland have raised a number of criticisms in response to the county council’s review of the planning system.

The responses from parish and town councils have been published in time to be considered at its the local authority’s policy board tomorrow morning. The recommendations will then go before the full council at the start of April.

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.

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.

Some of the key recommendations of the Deloitte report are the creation of two countywide planning committees, instead of the three geographical committees and the countywide committee; the cessation of the automatic referral to committee following a response

from town and parish councils that is contrary to officer recommendation; the removal of the trigger relating to numbers of letters of objection/support (currently five).

Nearly all of the county’s town and parish councils are opposed to the changes proposed for a combination of reasons: Consultation time period insufficient; object to the removal of the automatic trigger; delegated decisions will result in loss of local knowledge and views in the determination process; removal of parish and town councils as statutory consultees contravenes the Northumberland Town and Parish Council Charter; POSE reports not made available for consultation; localism is ignored in the Deloitte review.

Coun Peter Jackson, Conservative group leader, said, “The current proposals are so wide-ranging and potentially damaging to local participation in the planning process that I have been calling for an all-party working group to consider the full implications. Unfortunately Labour has decided once again to impose upon the rest of the county without any form of local consent.

“It seems as though our hard-working area planning committees are being blamed for years of poor management from County Hall. However, the evidence from the independent POSE report is that the vast majority of comparable councils in England are able to manage high-performing planning departments along with area-based planning systems which recognise and value the importance of local input into planning decisions which affect all communities. Northumberland Conservatives pledge to bring back an area-based planning system to our county at the first possible opportunity.

“The dangerous implication of Labour’s proposals is that democracy will be stifled and local people will have less of a say in what happens in their community. That is going against everything that we should be seeking to achieve in a fair society.”

Conservative candidate for Berwick, Anne-Marie Trevelyan added: “Planning decisions can have major impacts on people’s lives and the process must be fully open and accessible and I am concerned at the prospect of more and more planning decisions being taken by officers under delegated authority instead of by democratically-elected members.

“I have had a large number of residents and representatives of parish and town councils contact me to express their anger and opposition to these plans. You must be aware of the weight of public opinion against this and I would urge the administration to reconsider its position on this matter.”

Northumberland County Council 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.”

Coun Allan Hepple, policy board member for planning, housing and regeneration, said: “The service has been under tremendous pressure since seven local authorities were joined together in 2009. I am determined to oversee a change in performance to meet our ambitions. The proposals aim to promote an open for business culture that supports appropriate new development across the county.”