The Planning Portfolio Holder considered a report containing responses received to the consultation on proposed changes to the Scheme of Delegation, forming part of the Council’s Constitution.
The Head of New Communities summarised the proposed changes set out in paragraphs 7 to 14 of the report from the Planning and New Communities Director, and drew attention to two additional responses that had been received from Fowlmere and Great Chishill Parish Councils. Both objected to the proposed changes, as originally drafted.
Whilst objections were raised to the original proposal, a significant number of parishes supported the amended proposal, which had emerged through the consultation period and which was now being promoted as the preferred change.
The Head of New Communities acknowledged the number of helpful suggestions made by Parish Councils about how the District Council could work more effectively with them. These suggestions would all be considered carefully to see whether they could be implemented. Responses would be given to the suggestions made.
Members brought a number of points to the Portfolio Holder’s attention. These included:
· The valuable contribution made by Parish Councils, because of the special knowledge they had of their local areas, should not be underestimated
· An inconsistent relationship between some Parish Councils and their District Councillors
· Unreasonable pressure that would be placed on the Planning Committee Chairman
· Parish Councils already feel vulnerable because of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s inability to demonstrate a five-year housing supply, thus rendering some local planning policies inoperable. As such, this report was poorly timed.
· Applications deemed minor from a district point of view were often seen as major at parish level
· Parish Councils were not statutory consultees: local Members should be more alert about proposals coming forward in their wards and work more closely with them, especially smaller parish councils.
· A lack of awareness by at least one Parish Council about the proposed changes.
· A recognition that Planning Committee should focus on the more significant and contentious applications.
It was requested that the draft consultation letter to Parish Councils (Appendix C) be further amended, to encourage and welcome Parish Council attendance at Planning Committee, stressing the value of such attendance.
Clarification was sought, and confirmation given, that Parish Councils would receive written responses if requested items were not taken forward to Planning Committee, and that further planning training would be offered to Parish Councils.
The Planning and New Communities Director said that the revised proposal had been thoroughly thought through, culminating in debate at the Parish Councils Forum. Parish Councils had received four notifications / emails about the proposed changes, encouraging comments on the scheme. The Planning and New Communities Director highlighted the current anomaly, summarised in paragraph 11, whereby Parish Councils had an automatic referral, whereas local Members, who were part of the Local Planning Authority, could only refer through designated officers and the Chairman of The Planning Committee.
Councillor Lynda Harford, speaking in her capacity of Planning Committee Chairman, expressed regret at the disquiet caused by the proposal. Councillor Harford accepted that the opportunity must be seized to communicate more effectively so as to explain the reasons for decisions, and to make Parish Councils feel a greater part of the process. She currently did this and would continue to do so. She insisted that the proposed changes had not been prompted by the need to address staffing issues within the District Council’s Development Control service.
Following further discussion, the Portfolio Holder invited Councillor Morris, Chairman of Cottenham Parish Council to address those present. Councillor Morris described the proposal as a bad move at a bad time. He claimed that South Cambridgeshire District Council had demonstrated a lack of urgency in addressing issues surrounding the draft Local Plan, and that it should show more empathy with parishes.
The Portfolio Holder stressed that there was no intention to disenfranchise Parish Councils. The Head of New Communities added that the aim was to listen to, and work with, Parish Councils, hence the change to the scheme now being proposed as a result of feedback given during the consultation period. A further aim was to improve and streamline the planning process so as to improve the South Cambridgeshire District Council’s performance.
Recognising the mood of the meeting, the Planning Portfolio Holder agreed to ask officers to look again at the scheme of delegation of planning decisions, and to defer making a recommendation to Full Council for a period of up to six months.