The change removes the power from an elected councillor and means that from now on the director of planning at the council – a council officer – will decide which planning applications are decided by staff, and which are decided by councillors meeting in a public committee.
Those planning decisions which are referred to the planning committee will continue to be decided by elected councillors.
The decision was taken at a session of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s full council on Thursday (May 21), with the vote falling down party lines. Only the Conservatives and one independent councillor voting against.
The change to planning delegation powers was made following a legal challenge against the council’s old system – where the chairman of planning held the authority to delegate – by the residents’ campaign group the Fews Lane Consortium.
The Liberal Democrat administration argued the change was needed to protect the council against further legal challenges and that a review into the system is underway, which may produce a different and longer-term system.
The Conservative opposition group’s alternative proposal – to allow councillors or parish councils to be able to “call-in” applications to the planning committee for a decision – was voted down.
The leader of the Conservative opposition group, Heather Williams, said her criticisms of the administration’s change, and the rationale for her own proposal, came down to maintaining democratic accountability in the planning process.
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Cllr Williams said the administration’s new process created “a fundamental change to the principle, that no longer elected members will be determining the agenda on the planning committee. And I do feel very strongly that that is inappropriate.”
She said the Liberal Democrats’ system would damage the council’s reputation.
The council’s cabinet member for planning, Liberal Democrat Tumi Hawkins, said the Conservative’s proposal was “inappropriate at this time”.
And she said the right of automatic referral – like the one proposed by the Conservatives – was removed by the Conservative administration in 2016.
The Conservatives responded that under the system they introduced in 2016 an elected councillor was still left with the final authority on planning delegation.
Cllr Hawkins said the council values the input of parish councils, but allowing parish councils an automatic call-in would remove the control of the planning agenda from the council.
“Parish councillors are not always elected, so there is a democratic deficiency there, if we allow parish councils to determine the agenda of the planning committee,” Cllr Hawkins said. She added the council has committed to a review. She said the “proper way” to amend call-in arrangements is to “wait for that process to take place”.
Independent councillor Deborah Roberts said: “It is entirely wrong for the council, in my opinion, to give authority from themselves over to unelected, unaccountable officers, however good those officers are. It is a question of officers marking their own homework.”
The MP for South Cambridgeshire, Conservative Anthony Browne, lent his support to his party colleagues on the council in a statement ahead of the decision. But the deputy leader of the council, Liberal Democrat Aidan Van de Weyer, dismissed the MP’s intervention, noting he is not a resident of the area.
Cllr Williams defended the MP’s intervention, saying he is elected by the residents.
‘They have given away their authority’
The chairman of the planning committee, Lib Dem John Batchelor, said he was “quite sympathetic” to some of the arguments made against his party’s decision. But he said a wider review into the system is the time and place to have that debate.
But he added: “This is not the end of democracy as we know it. The system, actually, remains virtually the same. The vice chair and myself will continue to sit with the officers and discuss applications in the way we have. There is no change whatsoever and you can be assured that I’m not going to be overwhelmed by officers attempting to make their own decisions by themselves. That simply will not happen. What we are doing today is simply to meet legal requirements.”
He urged all councillors to support his party’s change, and said “this is a holding position,” pending the outcome of the review into the process.
At the end of the debate Cllr Hawkins tried to reassure opponents of the decision that she had listened to concerns and that the council would engage with parish councils throughout the planning process.
“But I must admit I do not agree with the premise that we are reducing democracy. We are not,” she said. “What we are trying to do here is to make sure that we have a balance between democracy and lawfulness.”
She said she would “take on board” concerns about trust and feedback in the process.
She said a system is in place to listen to the concerns of parish councils in the process, and said she recognised their contribution.
The Fews Lane Consortium, which prompted the shift in policy through its legal challenge, said it is also opposed to the new system.
Director Daniel Fulton said: “Rather than actually fixing the problematic aspects of the scheme, they have simply given away their authority to determine planning applications to unelected officers who are completely unaccountable to the council itself and to the residents of this district.”