Political parties at loggerheads over changes to planning rules

Cllr Chris White and Cllr Mary Maynard.

Cllr Chris White and Cllr Mary Maynard. - Credit: SADC

Changes are afoot within the local planning system, but not all are happy with the move, claiming it is an attack on people's democratic rights.

An initiative included in St Albans district council's budget for 2022-2023 proposes removing call-ins for small developments, such as building an extension, cutting down a tree with a preservation order, or knocking down a building in the Conservation Area

The Lib Dem administration argues this will reduce the amount of bureaucracy surrounding the decisions, freeing up councillors' time to focus on more impactful applications. It won the tentative backing of the Local Plan Advisory Group last night, subject to further debate.

Council leader Cllr Chris White explained the rationale behind the move: "The district council is unique in the county and possibly the country in having a development management meeting once a week. All other districts in Hertfordshire have one committee. This sucks in huge amounts of a scarce resource. The issue is not especially budgetary - the savings would be modest - but how we use the budget.

"Most of the applications heard are very small and in most cases there is no change from the officer recommendations anyway. Cancellations of development management committees for lack of business are quite common.

"Meanwhile there is precious little attention to the minors (one to ten new dwellings) or majors (more than 10). This is where councillor attention needs to be focussed. In a system which is rightly or wrongly biased towards developers, it's vital that councillor concerns on behalf of residents are given an airing so that changes can be made in the application.

"Hence the emphasis on pre-application procedures and the need to increase resources for it. Under the current system a side extension gets as much air time as a housing development of 150 units. This can't be right.

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"There was strong Conservative support for the outline proposals when first introduced in a public forum last year (Local Plan Advisory Group). It looks as though the Conservative leadership has decided that they want to play politics with it and have been propagating some scare stories. I am now - months after these ideas were made public - having to deal with queries and am meeting with one or two organisations as a result."

Tory leader Cllr Mary Maynard has condemned the move, suggesting decisions will be taken in secret behind closed doors by planning officers.

"In my view, it’s a real attack on people’s democratic rights.  I was repeatedly asked by planning officers to implement this when I was portfolio holder. They view councillor involvement as a nuisance and don’t like decisions being taken out of their hands. I always said no.

"We know the Lib Dems are not democrats. Their reaction to the Brexit vote demonstrated that. They show it at St Albans with their reduction of scrutiny and the way they have removed the power of the audit committee.  At some point, you have to say enough’s enough. You don’t just lose your democratic rights when people march into your country.  They can be eroded gradually."

Professor Tim Boatswain, chairman of Conservation 50, said: "I understand the council's wish to make planning procedures more efficient and less of a financial burden to the taxpayers by reducing the number of planning committees.

"However, I have a major concern about removing the councillor's ability to call-in applications. The danger is that the community is excluded from a process of debate over planning. Public engagement through their elected representatives is crucial if undemocratic planning decisions are to be examined and challenged."