Concerns have been raised about Northumberland County Council keeping communities in the dark by withholding legal advice on the robustness of neighbourhood plans.
After gaining power, the Conservative administration decided to withdraw the core strategy last summer, meaning that the authority had to start again on the development of its Local Plan, which isn’t expected to be in place until 2020.
In March, the Government warned Northumberland that the preparation of its new plan must be speeded up by three months.
At the meeting last July when the core strategy was withdrawn, councillors were told that adopted neighbourhood plans would carry full weight and emerging ones would carry some weight depending on where they were up to in their preparation.
However, questions are now being asked as to why the council will not share legal advice on the robustness of neighbourhood plans while there is no countywide framework in place.
A council spokeswoman said: “Councils are entitled to take legal advice and for this to remain confidential.
“The council works for the benefit of communities across Northumberland.
“There are inevitably a range of vested interests in relation to planning and, in this case, the council considers communities are better protected by preserving the confidential status of the advice obtained.”
But the Labour opposition at County Hall has criticised this ‘lack of transparency’, adding that Conservative and council leader Peter Jackson should be ‘held to account’ for this ‘shocking decision’.
Labour leader Grant Davey said: “Coun Jackson promised transparency yet he won’t let town and parish councils know the worst-kept secret in Northumberland – neighbourhood plans are almost worthless because of his decision to scrap the core strategy.
“Many local representatives at town and parish level have put a lot of time and expense into developing neighbourhood plans only to have them undermined by the disastrous decision to scrap the core strategy.
“This will end up costing the taxpayer more money and this is why the decision to get rid of the core plan needs to be independently investigated.”
Coun Jackson has previously defended the decision by saying that the previous core strategy was not likely to have been approved and that the new plan will be delivered ‘within a very similar timescale to the previous one’.
There are already three neighbourhood plans in place in Northumberland – Allendale, Alnwick & Denwick and Morpeth – with another 27 in various stages of development.
Alnwick’s document is set to be tested in front of a planning inspector in July when an appeal is heard for a housing scheme which was refused because it was contrary to the neighbourhood plan.
At last month’s Ashington and Blyth Local Area Council meeting, Joan Sanderson, the local authority’s senior planning manager, said that the county council was working with those groups with neighbourhood plans in place to ensure they will fit together with the new Local Plan.
By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service