Agenda item

Constitution - Determination of Planning Applications

Report of Report of Councillor Paul Claussen, Deputy Leader & Executive Member for Governance and Councillor Gordon Bambridge, Executive Member for Planning.

Minutes:

The Deputy Leader, Councillor Paul Claussen presented the report. 

 

The report related to a decision made by the Planning Committee at its meeting on 8 April 2019 to amend the existing scheme of delegations to Officers, and to establish a Chairman’s Panel. 

 

Members were informed that the Council had been subject to a Peer Review of the Planning Committee in spring 2018 where it had recommended that the Council should regularly review delegations to Officers to determine planning applications, and the ability of Councillors to request call-ins to the Committee.  These changes would make the planning system more efficient by having fewer applications to consider at the Planning Committee.

 

Councillor Atterwill felt that since the May Elections, the membership of the Planning Committee had changed and he did not believe it was appropriate at this stage to consider this proposal.  He believed that the need for a Chairman’s Panel was sound and supported the proposal in principle but he had concerns about the current wording of the recommendations.  He asked if training would be available to any Members who perhaps had limited planning knowledge to help prepare them for the proposed call-in form which was going to be introduced.  Having considered the proposals and researched the adopted Constitution covering a Chairman’s Panel at South Holland District Council he believed that, in order to provide political balance and oversight, to ensure efficient decision making, the following amendment should be made to the Officer’s report.  He then drew Members’ attention to Appendix A of the report, Section F and proposed that the 3rd paragraph of Section F should be deleted in its entirety and replaced with the following wording:

 

“The Chairman’s Panel comprise of 3 Planning Committee Members following as closely as possible to the political balance of the Planning Committee and shall include the Chairman of the Planning Committee, or in their absence, the Vice-Chairman of the Planning Committee.  Relevant Ward Members or a substitute may attend meetings of the Chairman’s Panel when the Panel is to consider an item that related specifically to that Members Ward”.

 

Councillor Atterwill pointed out that this closely reflected what was in the South Holland District Council’s Constitution and he had been advised by a Breckland Executive Director that it seemed to work very well. 

 

Additionally, paragraph 4 of the same Appendix (Appendix A), he felt that this paragraph should be deleted in its entirety and replaced with the following wording:

 

“The Panel shall be convened on an adhoc basis as required.  Membership should be on a rolling basis to be determined by the Planning Committee Members at each of its meetings”. 

 

Councillor Atterwill said that he had discussed these changes with the Chairman of the Planning Committee and felt that there should be a standing item on the agenda at the monthly meetings where it could be decided who would be on the Panel for the following month.  This should be the Chairman or the Vice-Chairman, and to maintain Political Balance, one Conservative Member and one Opposition Member to be determined.  He believed that this would work very well and could see no reason to have more than 3 people on the Panel to make it more efficient in the decision making process.   He also believed that there should be a six monthly review (if implemented) by the Overview & Scrutiny Commission.  He asked the Executive Member for Planning, Councillor Bambridge, if any developments of 10 or more dwellings should automatically go to Committee and not let the decision be made by an Officer.  Overall, he supported the report in principle subject to his aforementioned changes to make the process more transparent, politically balanced and to give the public confidence that this was a good solution going forward.

 

In response, the Executive Member for Planning, Councillor Bambridge advised that it was a long established practice in this Council to appoint Panels under certain committees such as the Licensing Panel and the Licensing Hearing Panel both of which were completely non-political.  Any Member appointed to the Planning Committee sat as a Breckland Member not as an Independent, Labour, Green or Conservative Member.  Therefore, as a Member of the Planning Panel, he expected the same.  He agreed with the rolling membership and any Member of the Planning Committee including the substitutes could sit on the Panel.  He mentioned the practical reasons for it being open in this way, as well as being non-political, due to the difficulties on occasions to get together the right amount of Members to attend.

 

As for the form that Members were being asked to complete for call-in purposes; this had been discussed at great length and he appreciated that it was prior to the Elections but one of the reasons that it was not brought in earlier in the year was because of the new Council being formed and he would like the new Council to endorse the decisions made by the former Council.  The form itself was no different to what it was now except for it being formalised. Some Members asked for applications to come before the Committee and this form was asking for a planning reason not a political or personal reason. South Holland District Council had a completely different political balance in comparison to Breckland.  He supported local Members being able to input to the Panel particularly if there was a significant application affecting their Ward.

 

In response to a question from Councillor Askew in relation to the call-in form, the Executive Member for Planning explained that any call-in was directed straight to the Chairman of the Planning Committee but if Members were mindful to approve the recommendations any call-in would be discussed by the Panel.

 

The Leader, Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, explained the difference between the current call-in process and the new proposed process.  Any call-in would be discussed by the Panel to decide whether or not the application should go before the Planning Committee where Members could challenge the Officer’s recommendation of approval or refusal.  This was the type of process the Council was trying to adopt, the decision did not sit solely with the Chairman but allowed transparency to other Members to sit in on the Panel as a sounding board.  The Panel would not be making the decisions but would be recommending whether the application should continue on its journey to the Planning Committee.  Sometimes Planning meetings lasted for more than 6 hours which was not a good approach to making such important decisions.  The Council needed to reduce the time of these meetings and make sure that Members considered appropriate applications.  Currently, the Committee heard applications where no Ward Member, public or local representatives were present which, in his opinion, was a waste of the Committee’s time as they should be debating some of the most challenging applications that Breckland faced.  The PAS Review, independent of this authority, made some very clear recommendations.  He acknowledged Councillor Atterwill’s comments and these would be reviewed.  It would return to the Commission whenever needed for review and he felt that Members should move forward with the current recommendations bearing in mind the amendments that had been put forward by Councillor Atterwill.

 

Councillor Jermy stated that he had only two occasions in his years as a Councillor to call in an application both of which were refused.  On both of those occasions, from a public perception point of view, what the people were really disappointed about was the process, probably more so than the final outcome of the decision.  He believed that with Planning, the public had more concerns about how the business was conducted and anything the Council could do to add faith in the process would be welcomed.  He suggested that the Chairman of the Planning Committee would welcome wider involvement in the determination of whether or not an application should go to Committee.  The principle of having an opposition Member on that Panel would be something that the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman would also welcome to add greater trust and faith in the process.  Therefore, he was happy to support the amendment to the process to accommodate that.  Personally, he would much rather have two Committees one dealing with applications from the north of Breckland and the other dealing with applications in the south where local knowledge could be well utilised.

 

Councillor Gilbert fully supported the proposal of forming a Panel but felt that Members needed to realise why the Planning Committee was overloaded by applications and he gave an example of the minor applications that had to be brought to Committee due to departure from policy and agreed that whatever the decision, the Panel be reviewed in a few months’ time.  He also felt to remove applications from the Committee process for 10 or more dwellings was wrong and should be looked at again.  Referring to page 65 of the agenda pack, at section 2.5, it states: “Where an item included on an agenda of a meeting of the Planning Committee related specifically to a ward of the district that a ward member although not being a member of the Committee, may nevertheless attend that meeting and take part in any debate on the item, but not vote on them”.  He asked if this had changed as currently a Ward Member would be allowed 3 minutes to speak the same as anyone else but this seemed that they could participate in the debate for more than their allotted time but obviously not vote and asked for guidance on this matter. 

 

In response, the Leader explained that any Member could speak at any Committee regardless of whether they had been appointed to that Committee or not.  However, it would be at the Chairman’s discretion as to how long he allowed that Member to speak.  The rule was that the Chairman would allow the Member to speak for 3 minutes and, if minded, add to the debate and the conversation; therefore, there was no change to the current process of Ward Member speaking.  He was concerned that Members felt that there was a lack of transparency and accountability for the Council’s Planning Committee and rightly or wrongly it was up to Members as local champions to try and dispel that, as it was about the reputation of this local authority.   As far as political balance was concerned, the Licensing Panels were made up of those Members who happened to be available on the day of the meeting and if it had to be politically balanced, due to the make-up of the Council, some Members would be extremely busy.

 

As a Member of the Planning Committee, Councillor Clarke supported the principle of the Panel and broadly supported Councillor Atterwill’s proposal and also the points that Councillor Jermy raised about splitting the Planning Committee meetings into north and south. He asked if the Panel would have the same information presented to them as if they were at the Planning Committee.  He also endorsed the principle of the review.

 

Councillor Oliver had noted that the Panel was not a decision making body and asked if one of the Officers could comment on the following concern.  In the event that the Panel made a recommendation that an application should not go to Committee and the Committee had not seen the relevant facts in relation to that application was it the Officers view that it would not form part of the formal planning decision process which would then not allow for a judicial review; or would the Panel have sufficient weight that a judicial review could be brought on the basis that the Panel failed to properly consider the planning application.

 

Mark Stinson, the Executive Manager for Governance explained that the Panel was not a decision making body, it was an administrative process – a check and balance. The proposal was that the matters were delegated to an Officer, this was simply a mechanism by which either an Officer could check, in certain circumstances, whether this matter ought to be escalated to the Planning Committee or alternatively go before Members to challenge where an Officer was exercising delegated authority.  In other words the Panel would be part of the administrative process rather than the decision making process.  For clarity, Councillor Oliver asked that if an Officer consulted with the Panel and disagreed with the Panel’s view, and therefore decided to proceed on the original course of action, would there be no recourse for Members in that case.  Members were informed that despite a matter being delegated to an Officer, the delegating body still retained the legal authority to make those decisions.  Such a disagreement was highly unlikely.

 

The Chairman of the Planning Committee, Councillor Wilkin put the concerns into context and stated that under the current process at Planning Committee meetings, at the end of the agenda, there were many applications that had to be considered even though there were no speakers, Ward Representatives or Parish Councillors present and there had been no issues raised by Highways, drainage or ecology, they were just against Policy and listed the many applications that had to be discussed.  The larger applications would still need to be discussed at Committee. He felt that the cost implications to have two Committees a month for north and south applications would be excessive.  Additionally, with any application there was the Appeal process if the applicant felt that the decision was unfair.  Having three Members on the Panel was adequate and avoided situations where he had to use his casting vote.

 

Councillor Atterwill then re-iterated the point about political balance, he completely agreed with the Chairman of the Planning Committee’s comments, but the fact remained that democratically a certain political balance had to be applied to the Planning Committee as it did in other Committees.  At Breckland at the moment, the makeup of the Planning Committee was a 3 to 1 ratio of 9 Conservatives and 3 Opposition Councillors therefore all he was suggesting was, from a public perspective, and what was already in place at South Holland District Council, written in their Constitution, that the Council should, wherever possible, try to have a political balance on the Panel of 3.

 

Councillor Claussen, the Deputy Leader, had listened with interest to what everyone had said but one observation, in relation to South Holland District Council was that it was not a shared service and secondly, political balance was written in the Constitution; therefore, on a Panel of 5 Members, there would be 4 Conservatives and 1 Labour and Councillor Clarke, as a Member of the Planning Committee would be extremely busy.

 

The amendments were put to the vote:

 

1.     That the 3rd paragraph of Section F be deleted in its entirety and replaced with the following wording:

 

“The Chairman’s Panel to comprise of 3 Planning Committee Members following as closely as possible the Political Balance of the Planning Committee and shall include the Chairman of the Planning Committee, or in their absence, the Vice-Chairman of the Planning Committee.  Relevant Ward Members or a substitute may attend meetings of the Chairman’s Panel when the Panel is to consider an item that relates specifically to that Members Ward”.

 

The proposed amendment was seconded.

 

The Chairman then asked for a show of hands for this amendment and the vote was lost by 11 votes for the amendment and 24 against.  The amendment was not carried.

 

2.     That paragraph 4 of the same Appendix (Appendix A) be deleted in its entirety and replaced with the following wording:

 

“The Panel be convened on an adhoc basis as required.  Membership should be on a rolling basis to be determined by the Planning Committee Members at each of its meetings”.

 

The proposed amendment was seconded.

 

The Chairman then asked for a show of hands for this amendment.

 

A Member asked if a recorded vote could be taken.

 

Councillor Jermy indicated that he wished to speak on a point of order and asked the Executive Manager for Governance if a recorded vote could be taken or did it have to be supported by a certain amount of Members.  The Executive Manager for Governance advised that for a recorded vote to be taken it had to be supported by 13 Members; however, he reminded all Members that any Member could have their individual vote recorded if they so wished.

 

Following the vote on the second amendment, a number of Members requested that their votes in favour of the amendment be recorded as follows:

 

Councillor Atterwill

Councillor Birt

Councillor Brindle

Councillor Clarke

Councillor Dowling

Councillor Gilbert

Councillor Harvey

Councillor Jermy

Councillor Morton

Councillor Taylor

Councillor Wickerson

 

The vote was lost by 11 votes for the amendment and 24 against plus one abstention.  The amendment was not carried.

 

Councillor Duigan queried whether individual votes would be recorded for amendment 1 as they had not been requested at the time the vote was taken.

 

The Executive Manager for Governance advised that there would be no individual votes recorded against amendment 1.

 

The Deputy Leader echoed again that once the Constitution was amended, the Panel could still be reviewed, and he thanked all Members for their engagement in this matter.

 

For the benefit of new Members, Councillor Kybird stated that any changes made to the Constitution did not take effect until the next Full Council meeting.  The Executive Manager for Governance pointed out that there was provision in the Constitution for a report that was brought before Council to amend the Constitution, the amendment took place immediately.  It was where Members sought to make a change on the day of the meeting that those changes would not take effect until the next Full Council meeting.

 

The original recommendations were then voted upon; and it was

 

RESOLVED that:

 

1)        paragraph 3 of Part 3 Section F3 of the Constitution be amended as shown in Appendix A of the report in order to extend the current scheme of delegation to officers to determine planning applications, including the establishment of a Chairman’s Panel, in accordance with the decision of the Planning Committee held on 8 April 2019; and

 

2)        the additional minor changes as shown in Appendix B of the report be approved.

 

Supporting documents: