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Cornish councillors concerned over handling of planning applications due to coronavirus

Cornish councillors concerned over handling of planning applications due to coronavirus

Published by the Pirate FM News Team at 12:00pm 10th April 2020.

By Richard Whitehouse, Local Democracy Reporter

Concerns have been raised over a decision by Cornwall Council to let unelected officers decide whether developments should be granted planning permission.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, the authority has scrapped all planning committee meetings and has decided instead to allow planning officers to use what are known as delegated powers to determine applications.

But councillors are concerned that this is taking out the democratic process and have called for the council to consider holding “virtual” committee meetings using video conferencing technology.

Conservative councillor Mark Formosa claimed the change in determining planning applications was “dangerous” and has launched a petition calling for a rethink. He said he was hoping it would get cross-party support.

He said:

“The Government is allowing councils to hold ‘virtual’ meetings, so there is no reason why the planning committee cannot meet that way to decide on applications.

“I consider it a very dangerous move to put all this power in the hands of a single officer, an officer who, in turn, is passing on those powers to people lower down the hierarchy.

“The planning department is rather weak and there have been some awful decisions which impact badly on the daily lives of neighbours who have to live with them for the rest of their time.

“So I can see it will not take long before certain developers start piling in with planning applications to get approvals from officers during the crisis when they know they might not get them passed when the situation returns to normal.”

The Newquay councillor said the council was consulting with local councillors when considering applications but added:

“It is entirely at the discretion of the officer as to whether they ask me or any other councillor their views, and once we give our opinion, the officer does not have to take any notice at all. They can still make their own decision.

“Councillors like me have absolutely no power whatsoever to stop any inappropriate plans being passed while the coronavirus emergency is still with us.

“I feel strongly that planning decisions must remain in the hands of councillors who are elected by their communities.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Dulcie Tudor, who chairs the council’s strategic planning committee and also sits on the central sub-area planning committee, also said she was concerned.

She said she and other planning committee chairs and vice-chairs had been asked for their views on how the council should handle applications and had suggested that virtual meetings would be the best option.

In a statement, Cornwall Council said:

“We are working hard to keep the planning service operating effectively in the face of unprecedented challenge. All scheduled committee meetings, including planning committees, undergo a risk assessment.

"Due to the present government advice, it is not deemed safe or appropriate to ask members to attend any meetings in person. Delegation arrangements have been put in place by the chief executive under the non-executive urgency decision procedures following consultation with and support from the political group leaders.

“The Government is currently putting in measures to allow committee meetings to be held virtually.  Once the details of the regulations around those measures are understood, we’ll be exploring ways to enable such meetings taking into account issues such as technology and the capacity and availability of staff to run these during this time of crisis.

"We are aware that some other authorities have held virtual meetings but, to our knowledge, these have still had a quorum of members present in a building with others attending virtually.  

“In terms of planning decisions that would have otherwise been heard at committee, a protocol has been developed to ensure that these applications continue to be fully scrutinised through engagement with the divisional member and members of the planning committee.

"It is recognised that there could be strategically important applications or very contentious applications that might be better held until a full hearing can take place, this will be considered on a case by case basis and the risk of an appeal for non-determination will need to be taken into account in this discussion. 

“Applicants will be informed of this process and their views will be taken into account.”

Bob Egerton, Cabinet member for planning, added:

“I would like to reassure members and the community that the service director for planning and sustainable development is very mindful of the sensitive nature of many planning applications and she is committed to ensuring that decisions that would have gone to committee continue to involve members of the planning committee and the divisional member so that all views can be fully considered.”

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