Concerns raised over handling of Northumberland planning applications during crisis

Northumberland County Council's current home at County Hall in Morpeth. Northumberland County Council's current home at County Hall in Morpeth.
Northumberland County Council's current home at County Hall in Morpeth.
Concerns have been raised about the lack of local councillor involvement in planning decisions in the coming months.

As previously reported, Northumberland County Council’s chief executive Daljit Lally has decided to suspend the powers of the five local area councils to deal with planning applications for six months.

A spokeswoman for the local authority said that this was so ‘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’.

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The scrapping in April 2015 of the previous system of three area-based planning committees in favour of two county-wide committees was very unpopular and the Conservatives came to power in May 2017 with the local area councils as a key plank of their manifesto.

The recent decision has similarly not been welcomed by some, who are concerned at the potential lack of local accountability.

Peter Reed and Mary Hipwell, co-chairs of Alnwick Civic Society, feel strongly about the changes.

They have contacted the chief executive to express their view that local planning committees have unrivalled knowledge of local conditions, voters expect them to make decisions and hold them to account, and there was no need to suspend them.

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In a statement, they added: “The new arrangements rely too heavily on the judgement of the chief planning officer. And it is excessive to set a time limit of six months, when preparations were already being made to ease restrictions.

“We want to keep up pressure to end these temporary arrangements. We see no reason why local area councils shouldn’t continue, by using suitable technology.

“There are some difficult planning decisions in the pipeline for Alnwick and our priority is to ensure that the local planning committee is able to play its full part in those decisions.

“We are urging our members, wherever they live in Northumberland, to support efforts by their local councillor to get these temporary changes reversed.”

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Coun Georgina Hill, the independent ward member for Berwick East, has also expressed her concerns.

“The local area councils were set up with great fanfare; they were going to bring planning decision-making closer to local communities,” she said.

“It appears to me that the local area council model has led to greater scrutiny of planning applications and more willingness to refuse unsuitable developments, although this might not go down so well centrally.

“The proffered practical reasons, in light of Covid-19, for the decision to suspend the local area councils for six months do not hold much water.

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“Online meetings are up and running and if they can conduct online meetings of the strategic planning committee then they can quite obviously do the same for the local area councils.”

Coun Hill, who chairs the audit committee, also added that it is vital that the authority’s scrutiny process starts operating at full capacity again.

“The council’s auditors and audit committee are identifying and responding to the emerging risks in this new landscape.

“It is really important that the council’s scrutiny committees now get back into full swing. Understandably, meetings were cancelled early on in the crisis but we should not now be seeing scheduled scrutiny committee meetings cancelled.”

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