Moray Conservatives have raised fears that contentious planning proposals could be approved without proper scrutiny while councils operate under emergency powers.
Councillor Claire Feaver (Forres), a member of Moray Council’s planning committee, has voiced concerns over changes in the way communities are consulted for large-scale proposals, such as windfarms.
She is concerned that important planning decisions may not face the usual scrutiny as the whole process is currently being undertaken online and committee meetings are on hold.
Cllr Feaver said: “Previously developers hosted exhibitions and made presentations to representative bodies like community councils. The point is that communities had the chance to come together and debate the pros and cons of a proposal, and provide feedback.
“Under new Scottish Government guidance that is no longer the case and everything is being done online.
“I can understand why, but local people are obviously concerned that this new system makes it much easier for developers to get their way unchallenged.
“For one thing, many people in rural areas either have poor broadband or none at all, and will miss out on being consulted.”
Cllr Feaver also expressed concern that as the planning committee was no longer meeting, and site visits had ceased, major and complex applications were no longer being scrutinised by the planning committee.
Decisions on planning, which had previously been taken by the committee, are now being taken by council officers under new powers of delegation, unless the specific application has been called in by the emergency committee.
Cllr Feaver added: “My concern is that the longer the emergency goes on, the more likely it is that important planning decisions may take place without elected representatives being able to properly scrutinise them, and then vote on them, on behalf of their constituents.
“I have every confidence in our planning staff, who are doing a demanding job in challenging circumstances, but it is very important that the council administration avoids any appearance of contentious proposals being decided ‘behind closed doors’.”
Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston has backed Cllr Feaver’s warning and said that he had been contacted by constituents concerned about some proposals.
He said: “Communities need to have confidence that their opinions have weight in the planning process.
“In recent years that confidence has been undermined by decisions made by local elected representatives being overturned, on appeal, by the Scottish Government.
“These new changes could exacerbate that impression still further if we are not very careful.”
He added: “Clearly, we cannot allow the whole planning system to grind to a halt, and we will have to accommodate the change in the way the council operates. But it must be done with care and judgement.
“Our communities will have to live with these decisions long after the developers have departed to pursue their next project.”