OPINION: serious principles at stake here

Barmoor Wind Farm
Barmoor Wind Farm

The Gazette’s editorial on Northumberland County Council’s proposed changes to the planning control system, February 5, takes a very simplistic view

It, and the anonymous letter on planning next to it, concentrate on the cost of appeals and suggest that the core problem is public pressure on committees to go against national planning guidance and the supposedly expert advice of planning officers.

With respect, that is nonsense.

For the last 10 years I have continuously monitored wind turbine planning applications in Northumberland, Scottish Borders and County Durham for the Windbyte website.

During this time, NCC planning officers have recommended approval of over 90 per cent of all so-called ‘farm turbine’ applications over 30m in height. This compares to 65 per cent and 67 per cent approval recommendations in neighbouring authorities.

Whereas Northumberland planning committee decisions have gone against officer recommendation in over 30 per cent of these cases, in neighbouring authorities the numbers are as low as two per cent and four per cent.

Few of the Northumberland refusals against officer advice have been appealed. However, far from planning appeal decisions finding in favour of officer recommendations, we have seen a number of cases - Follions, East Moneylaws and Felkington Farm come to mind - where planning inspectors have contradicted the findings of NCC officers, citing local and national planning guidance.

If these sort of decisions are delegated to planning officers, we will see increasing numbers of bad, albeit speedy, approvals. And many more 30m to 100m ‘farm turbines’ in the Green Belt and our tourist landscapes.

Decisions will often be made on the basis of defective, missing and misleading information which officers, with no local knowledge, frequently fail to spot and/or fail act on. Currently, local people at least have the opportunity to highlight planning issues to councillors at site visits and at committee.

The direct result of more rubber-stamp, delegated decisions will be to increase the numbers of High Court appeals against the council. These are time consuming and very expensive.

Note that there have been no judicial reviews of decisions on smaller turbines in neighbouring authorities, even though Scottish Borders has had nearly twice as many planning applications. Northumberland has seen five such applications to the High Court, with judgement going against NCC in four of the five.

Just in the case of Brackenside, the council admits that legal costs and fees have amounted to well over £80,000 to date. By comparison, appeals, most of which are by written submission, are relatively cheap.

Even if you don’t much care about the costs or increased numbers of bad planning decisions, there are serious principles at stake.

As recently as January 29, (shortly after the delivery of the Deloitte Report), the Deputy Leader of NCC wrote to town and parish councils to say that ‘As a council we are committed to continuing to strengthen the relationship between the town and parish councils and the county council. One of our eight headline manifesto commitments was Listening to and working with our towns and parishes.’

Yet NCC propose to radically reduce the role that local councils play in planning. They are even trying to claim that Town and Parish Councils are not entitled to be regarded as statutory consultees.

They want to remove the power of local councils to have planning applications referred for decision by a planning committee. They want to abolish area planning committees and to decide many more applications as ‘delegated decisions’, made by planning officers at County Hall.

They are also want to stop most site visits by planning committees.

Site visits are vital to a proper understanding of important applications and cannot be replaced by amateur video presentations by a planning officers, as proposed by NCC.

The Deloitte Report, a limited and selective review of part of the planning control process, was only finalised in late January, so there has been little time for even county councillors to properly examine and discuss the report.

Local councils were notified by email on February 5, yet NCC is demanding a response by February 19.

Local councils will find it impossible to consult their members and formulate a considered response in this time frame.

This is being handled as a ‘done deal’ by the ruling Labour group.

This is not a consultation in any meaningful sense and Northumberland’s communities deserve better of our county council.