Councillor says ‘democratic rights’ at stake during planning committee’s lockdown

Cllr Alison Foster
Cllr Alison Foster raised the objection

A councillor says the democratic rights of the public are being lost during the planning committee’s lockdown.

Cllr Alison Foster (Cons, Harrold ward) spoke out against Bedford Council rules that have allowed only a limited number of applications to be considered by councillors at the planning committee.

Under the lockdown rules plans have only been submitted to the elected committee to decide if political group leaders or the chairman give the nod.

This has had the effect of limiting the number of applications dealt with in public to about five per meeting, which are held online.

Before the lockdown, the committee had been dealing with up to 20 applications at each meeting.

Cllr Foster objected to the so called “scheme of delegation” being allowed to continue. It had been approved at a meeting in March.

“I will not be happy to see any further proposals to extend the scheme of delegation,” she said.

“I consider it undemocratic and I think it is denying people the right that they have to comment on applications and I think we should revert.”

Jon Shortland, the council’s chief officer for planning and infrastructure development, said the council’s planners are struggling to cope with their workload during lockdown.

He told the committee that there are seven vacancies in the 16-strong planning department, including three staff who have left the council during the lockdown.

Mr Shortland added that it is difficult to bring agency staff and new recruits “up to speed” when they are working at home. Each of their officers has an average of 88 cases to deal with, he said.

Planners had wanted to have total control over decisions but in March councillors amended proposals so there was a way they could bring plans to the democratic forum. And they agreed to review it.

When plans are dealt with by the committee it means a lot of extra work for planning officers in writing and presenting reports.

They then don’t have time to make decisions which means the system goes too slowly, the committee heard.

Cllr Foster also raised objections at the committee in March, and asked for the minutes of that meeting to be amended to reflect her position.

Cllr Mohammed Nawaz (Lab, Kempston Central and East) said he wanted to keep using the scheme of delegation until the July meeting.

And committee chairman Cllr Jon Abbott (Lib Dem, Oakley) said the committee would be getting an update next month and may look at returning to normal in August.

“It’s a little soon to move back to where we were,” he said.

The committee agreed to note the report by five votes to none against. There were three abstentions.

by Local Democracy Reporter
David Tooley

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