Councillors reject proposed increase to planning site visits

Bedford Borough Planning Committee

More visits to developments sites before meetings may put councillors off being part of the planning committee, a meeting heard.

Planning Committee chair, councillor Jonathan Abbott (LibDems, Oakley Ward) put forward a suggestion on 28 March that the committee could carry out more site visits ahead of meetings.

But this was not warmly received by other committee members.

Site visits are used to help reach a decision on issues where site circumstances are fundamental to the decision, including points that may be difficult for objectors to adequately put into words.

Councillor Sue Oliver (Labour, Kempston North Ward) said: “My first instinct on this is it’s quite hard to get members to sit on planning committees.

“You’ve effectively just doubled, tripled, quadrupled, the commitment by suggesting we go to every site on a planning visit ahead of the meeting, which clearly isn’t necessary.

“We don’t have very many site visits and it’s only for those that are
controversial, or just to reassure ourselves.

Councillor Abbott replied: “It was a thought which had come to mind as I know other planning committees around the country tend to do their site visits prior [to holding meetings].

“But I’m not asking everyone to vote, I’ve just asked us to think about this and also to get some feedback on it,” he said.

Councillor Alison Foster (Conservative, Harrold Ward) said: “I agree with councillor Oliver on this point.

“And as we’ve seen tonight, we’ve had one site visit approved, but if we’re only going to have four applications or five applications per meeting, one day, we will have a significant number of planning applications.

“Not all of those applications will require a site visit. So I’m in favour of keeping it as it is, and only going to site visits when they’re requested, or we feel it’s necessary,” she said.

Councillor James Weir (Conservative, Kempston Rural Ward) said that in his mind, there had only been four or five site visits in the last 12 months.

“So if we’re going to have, I don’t know, 35 applications to visit [per year] it is a massive increase,” he said.

He added that he tends to look at the sites on his own anyway.

Councillor Abbott said: “It’s just something that I know is potentially coming from the [task and finish group] review.

“A site visit can potentially set a level of expectation which then can create
disappointment further on.

“If we are informed prior to the meeting and we understand what we are talking about, what we’re debating, then hopefully we can be more efficient in what we do.

“As you say [councillor Oliver], it’s difficult enough to get people to sit on planning as it is. We don’t necessarily wish to make it even harder to come here.

“So it was a thought, the general feeling from my fellow members around the room is it’s not a thought which is liked.

“But you have to float these things occasionally,” he said.

By John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter

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