St Albans councillors condemn Government planning changes

MP Eric Pickles, Local Government Secretary visits HRC New Site

MP Eric Pickles, Local Government Secretary visits HRC New Site - Credit: Archant

SECRETARY of State Eric Pickles has been slated for “cutting a layer of democracy” from local government by introducing swingeing changes to planning laws.

The changes have effectively cut fees which will hit the district council’s income.

At a recent full St Albans district council meeting, councillors spoke out about the repercussions of new permitted development rules now in force which allow larger extensions to homes, offices and shops to be built without submission of a planning application.

Instead, such extensions will be subject to a “light touch” consultation with neighbours, and prior approval is required from council within strict timeframes.

New permitted development rights will allow change of use from offices to houses, to provide new homes in existing buildings.

Communities secretary Mr Pickles has introduced the changes to ease planning restrictions, cut red tape and bring empty and under-used buildings – including offices – back into use.

But Cllr Martin Leach described it as a “terrible and ridiculous piece of legislation imposed upon us”.

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He said the changes undermined council’s control over planning.

Cllr Leach added: “The idea that office space can be converted easily into housing – the amount of capital people would have to invest in that to happen is quite something.”

Cllr Chris Brazier warned it would cause problems between neighbours and increase complaints to the council: “I can imagine the council’s phones are going to run red-hot.

“This isn’t going to drive the economy forward because people aren’t going to borrow money to do the extensions.”

Particularly scathing was Cllr Mal Pakenham, who said Mr Pickles was a “salad-eating Yorkshireman” who was not only “pounding St Albans with rail freight”, but had also brought in changes deliberately designed to exclude councillors from the planning process.

Cllr Pakenham said a large slice of democracy had been sliced away. He warned too that Mr Pickles’ planning changes would have a detrimental impact on the council’s income as some fees would not be applicable, putting the planning department “under immense pressure”.

Cllr Pakenham went on: “They are not going to get any money for it. Mr Pickles is kicking council in the goolies.”

After the meeting Simon Rowberry, the council’s interim head of planning, said it was too early to know what the financial impact of Mr Pickles’ changes would be but “we will have a better idea at the end of the financial year”.

He explained: “The planning department has to consider ‘prior approval’ applications even though no fee is paid to the council.

“We are monitoring the effect of these changes on fee income. However, we don’t know how many applications will be submitted under this new prior approval process.”

Mr Rowberry said that an example was an application recently submitted to council for prior approval to change offices into residential flats: “The prior approval process has meant the council has not received a fee for this work. Before the new process was introduced in May, this type of proposal would require a fee of £5,390.”