Changes to how planning permission decisions will be made in Northumberland as crisis continues
The local authority’s chief executive Daljit Lally has decided to suspend the powers of the local area councils to deal with planning applications.
Plus, the full council meeting scheduled for July 8 has been cancelled and instead the annual meeting will take place on Wednesday, September 2, although this is subject to review.
All council meetings were halted in mid-March when the coronavirus restrictions came into force, before the first remote meetings – with councillors meeting virtually and being live-streamed on YouTube for the press and public – were held on Tuesday, May 12.
However, a letter to all councillors subsequently revealed that ‘a decision has been taken by the chief executive under her residual powers contained in the constitution to suspend the powers of the local area councils to deal with planning applications and enforcement matters, and to transfer these to the strategic planning committee for a period of six months which will enable this important statutory function to be maintained under the limitations of the current pandemic’.
The letter added that ‘the decision also extends the chief planning officer’s ability to determine planning applications which might otherwise be determined by committee, where they do not raise issues of strategic, wider community or significant county council interest’.
A Northumberland County Council spokesman said: “The transfer of planning responsibilities from the local area councils to the strategic planning committee means the resource and expertise necessary to hold such meetings can be concentrated on one committee as opposed to five, at a time when the organisation and running of virtual meetings is still very much in its infancy.”
There was significant criticism of the previous Labour administration when it pushed through a series of changes to the county’s planning system in April 2015, which included scrapping the three area-based planning committees – north, west and south, in favour of two county-wide committees.
This was intended to help streamline the service and speed up the process of determining applications, based on recommendations contained within a damning independent review by Deloitte, which ‘ identified a number of significant issues and concerns with regard to the quality, structure, performance, governance and costs of the planning service’.
The Conservatives, who took over at County Hall following the May 2017 elections, made the current system of five local area councils, with responsibility for local planning applications, a key plank of their manifesto that year.
This meant that for more than two-and-a-half years, local ward members have again been making decisions on proposals in their area (other than major schemes which are dealt with by the strategic planning committee).