9 August 2021
Dear fellow Councillors
Recently 59 Cotswold Town and Parish Councils (representing about 600 hundred councillors) voiced serious misgivings over the revised process of referring applications to the Planning Committee by signing a letter sent to Cotswold District Council: Concerns of Town/Parish Councils about the CDC Scheme of Delegation.
In November 2020 the current ruling administration introduced a protocol to reduce the number of applications heard at the Planning Committee, where material planning considerations should be the only reasons given for a Planning Committee hearing, and public interest should not be a consideration. According to the administration, since then 60% of Ward Councillor requests for referral to the full Planning Committee have been rejected by the Planning Review Panel. Until recently these decisions were made with no report, feedback or reasons to ward members. Following pressure from Councillors, we now receive a short summary of items discussed and the decisions reached by the panel.
Despite concerns or comments from District, Town and Parish Councillors, some important applications have been denied an airing at the Planning Committee, having been rejected by the Planning Review Panel. These contested applications were therefore decided as per officer's recommendations.
It is no secret that the CDC Planning Department is under unprecedented strain, not just owing to problems caused by the pandemic resulting in a surge of applications, but from loss of experienced staff and the electronic uploading of documents to the portal which has frustrated the validation process. Planning Officers have worked exceptionally hard to face these challenges but continue to be overwhelmed.
In an effort to address the situation the Conservative Group put forward an amendment to the full Council at the February 2021 budget meeting, to increase the Planning Department budget by £140,000 to help plug staffing levels, but this was rejected by the administration.
Following concerns, the Chairman of the Planning Committee stepped down and has since been promoted to Cabinet Member for the Planning Department.
At the full Council meeting on 14 July, the Conservative Group presented a motion to adopt a revised Planning Protocol similar to that used successfully by Stroud District Council which includes the following guidance:
- Requests for items to be placed before the Planning Committee can be made by:
(a) the Town or Parish Council in which the application site is located, or
(b) a Ward Councillor within whose ward the application site is located.
- An application which the Head of Development Management would otherwise consider it appropriate to determine pursuant to their delegation, should only be referred to committee where it has:
(a) generated significant public interest which has given rise to contradictory
views as to whether the application should be approved or refused; and
(b) such interest is based upon material planning considerations.
We were told that the Cabinet Member for Planning did not know anything about the aforementioned signed letter from the Town and Parish Councils, and the Leader of CDC shut down any debate on this subject.
The Conservative Group are deeply disappointed to have been outvoted in our many and varied efforts to resolve the situation. Planning is a fundamental service offered by CDC which affects people's lives. Your opinions count and it is important that we champion your misgivings. We shall continue in our efforts to represent your concerns; we are here to listen and we welcome your comments at all times.
Cllr Richard Morgan (Conservative Group Leader)
Cllr Sue Jepson (Deputy Conservative Group Leader)
on behalf: Cllr Stephen Andrews
Cllr Mark Annett
Cllr Tony Berry
Cllr Gina Blomefield
Cllr David Cunningham
Cllr Stephen Hirst
Cllr Robin Hughes
Cllr Julia Judd
Cllr Richard Keeling
Cllr Richard Norris
Cllr Ray Theodoulou
Cllr Steve Trotter
Motion 14e) Planning Committee Protocol - proposed by Cllr Steve Trotter, Fairford Ward
You will have all seen the letter to CDC Senior Management written on behalf of 59 Cotswold Parish and Town Councils so I won’t read it out. This number of Local Councils collectively writing to CDC is totally unprecedented. The letter, endorsed by over 600 Councillors sets out the grave concerns about the operation of the Planning Review Panel.
They strongly believe that the current process has reduced both their, and the Ward Councillors’ effectiveness with regard to local planning issues. They believe that this affects their overall ability and democratic right to fulfil this role and have asked for an urgent meeting to discuss their concerns.
CDC can respond in one of two ways: either write back and dismiss the concerns of 59 Parish and Town Councils as ill-informed and suggest that they all need training,
or address these concerns by incorporating a revised Planning Committee Protocol based on that used by Stroud District Council. This was suggested by our former Monitoring Officer, Patrick Arran, as a solution to the issue before he left and allows the Parish or Town Council and Ward Councillors to refer applications to the Planning Review Committee for its consideration. The Stroud Planning Committee Protocol is tried and tested and demonstrated to be fit for purpose.
I propose that this Council listens to the concerns of over 600 Cotswold Parish and Town
Councillors and responds in a positive way. Not to do so would demonstrate that this administration has lost the trust of Parish and Town Councils and is not listening to their unresolved issues.
Supporting Comments by seconder, Cllr Julia Judd, Vice Chair of the Planning Committee
The Planning and Licencing committee is a statutory service offered by this Council. The planning system is quasi-judicial because outcomes of planning decisions can lead to substantial financial benefit and it also earns this council fees. It is therefore critical that our planning system is open and transparent, to protect the integrity of the institution of CDC and its elected members.
The purpose of the planning committee is to bring prudence to debate where the weight of policies is in the balance. Another purpose is to bring humanity and reason to local planning. Where policies fail to address reasonable concerns, it should not mean that planning applications should not receive air at the Planning Committee. Planning officers, quite correctly, will always recommend in favour of policy - and that is exactly why we have the planning committee - to give a holistic view where the policies are lacking.
Alarm bells should ring loud and clear when there is strong local objection. If the ward member is unsure which material planning consideration should be cited as a reason to bring an item to the committee, they should liaise with the case officer, who will work with the ward member to identify the most appropriate material planning considerations so that if the Planning Committee does overturn an officer's recommendation, the Council still has the best shot at winning an appeal - should it go that far.
We should acknowledge that we have a respectable track record at appeal. It is also healthy to test the system by challenging ‘the path of least resistance’ - that is how we know our planning process is functioning at its best.
We should be honest and recognise that the Planning Review Panel has been created to alleviate pressures within the Planning Department; items brought to Planning Committee take much time and hard work for case officers. But it is not fit for purpose. Recently over 600 Parish Councillors have put their names to a letter voicing their concerns about the current Planning Protocol and the Planning Review Panel, frustrated that their concerns are being dismissed. They feel disenfranchised and suspicious.
I have the deepest respect for our planning officers, they do an exceptional job in difficult circumstances. However the planning department needs the resources to deal with the magnitude of work. Fiddling around with the constitution and democratic process is undermining what was recently described in the Constitution Support Group as formerly a ‘Gold Standard’ service.