Tynedale Council has defended its increased use of delegated powers to determine planning applications, following accusations that it is seeking to ignore local views and steamroller through controversial decisions.
The council has made around 700 decisions out of 800 applications this financial year through its delegation scheme, whereby proposals are judged by officers rather than its development control committee.
Since a revision of the delegation scheme last May the use of this system has risen to cover 88 per cent of decisions.
One recent instance involved an application for a wind monitoring mast at Plenmeller.
The proposal, which the applicants have admitted may lead to a 24 turbine wind farm on the site, attracted opposition from Whitfield and Plenmeller Parish Council on the basis that it would be visually intrusive so close to Hadrian’s Wall.
Yet it was approved by delegated powers rather than elected representatives on the planning committee.
Ken Johnson, who lives at nearby Coanwood, said: “You have got the possibility of 24 wind turbines within a mile of the World Heritage Site. I would have thought it would have merited a bit of local discussion and going before the planning committee if not the full council.
“People expect their local councillors to look after their interests.”
Mr Johnson described the use of delegated powers as “decisions by stealth”.
“I would assume it is to get something controversial pushed through without too much public discussion.”
Jenny Myles is a member of Neighbours of the West End Garage, a group which has contested plans to develop the site at Hexham since last autumn.
The latest application on the controversial proposals for the site was approved by the development control committee last week. But the handling of the matter has left her critical of the council’s planning department.
She believes that leaving matters to officers means there is no scrutiny of decisions by members.
Jenny said: “Delegating powers leaves things happening behind closed doors.”
The council’s head of planning, Helen Winter, has mounted a strong defence of her department’s use of delegation.
She said: “It is done in order to speed up planning decisions, which the applicants would like in most cases and the Government insists upon.
“Until recently we were accused of not dealing with things fast enough.”
The Government previously stipulated that authorities should aim to make 90 per cent of decisions through delegation.
Tynedale’s new system has increased not only the number of decisions made this way, but also the number of decisions made within a set time, to its current level of 260 per quarter.
Whether applications are decided by committee or under delegated powers is based not on their type but the level of public interest, and whether they are a departure from policy.
Mrs Winter dismissed suggestions that elected councillors are involved less in delegated matters.
Tynedale’s planning system is different from that of other authorities, where decisions are made by officers or councillors.
Tynedale has the option of the director of planning making a decision in consultation with two senior members.
“The council decided this delegated scheme. They wanted a scheme that retained the political involvement where necessary,” said Mrs Winter.
“I do not think that there are any members who are unhappy about it.”
The council has received no complaints about the system since it was revised.
The revised scheme aims to make better use of the time of the planning committee, which can often spend two hours discussing one or two applications.
Delegation frees it up to spend more time on controversial proposals.
A total of 23 decisions were made by the planning committee in December as opposed to only five in January.
Mrs Winter is “confident” that the same decisions are made through delegation as would be by committee.
One of the biggest changes of the new scheme is that since May, applications that attract opposition and no support can now be refused by officers using their delegated powers. But members can also request an application be dealt with by committee.
The planning department has to meet Government targets for determining applications within certain timescales.
Sixty per cent of “˜major’ applications have to be made within 13 weeks, 65 per cent of what are termed “˜minor’ ones in eight weeks, and 80 per cent of “˜others’ within eight weeks.
Any authority which meets all three targets for the period from last July to the end of this month will receive a bonus payment of £50,000 from the Government.
Tynedale is currently on track to meet the targets, but the situation with major proposals could change as it has been in possession of two wind farm applications for 12 months.
“A lot of our majors are very controversial and deserve a lot of public and officer involvement, and this council prefers to make the right decision on such important developments which will be in place for years to come,” added Mrs Winter.
“That is our priority before hitting arbitrary speed targets.”
Chairman of the council’s planning committee, Coun. Colin Horncastle, threw his support behind the system.
He said: “At this point in time we are meeting our targets for speed of processing planning applications and we simply wouldn’t be able to achieve this without an effective delegation scheme.”
By Brian Daniel
16 March 2007
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