YDNPA–Planning Committee Review and Impartiality

At the YDNPA’s virtual Full Authority meeting on Tuesday December 15 members discussed the review of the planning committee arrangements, and there was a response to the statement by the Association of Rural Communities about whether or not the chairman of that committee should be seen as an impartial facilitator.

Review of planning committee arrangements

Changes to the way the public can relate to its planning committee could be seen as an erosion of democracy or accountability  the Authority’s members were told.

A review of efficiency and effectiveness of planning committee arrangements including the recommendations by a working group led by Jim Munday were presented at the Full Authority meeting. These included  limiting the attendance at site visits to Authority members and officers only; and permanently reducing the five-minute slots for public speakers at committee meetings to three minutes.

The Authority meeting was told that the arrangements for public speakers had been changed with the introduction of virtual meetings. There were now three-minute slots – one in support of a planning application; one for objectors; and one for a parish council representative. These were allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis with  the applicant taking priority in support of an application.

Member Mark Corner commented: ‘I think we need to be careful how its communicated. It could be seen as an erosion of democracy or accountability in terms of the speaking time and the inability to attend a site meeting.’

The recommendation to restrict attendance at site meetings was approved. Richmondshire District councillor, John Amsden, had commented that it was democratic to have some of the public at site meetings so that they could understand the situation. ‘You have got to let the public see what you are doing and [that you are] doing it properly,’ he said.  

South Lakeland District councillor Ian Mitchell pointed out that at face-to-face meetings prior to the pandemic there were occasions when a five-minute slot for public speaking was shared by two people. Richmondshire District councillor Richard Good agreed and added that with complex plans five minutes could be needed.

The Authority’s Chief Executive, David Butterworth, assured the meeting that once it was possible to hold face-to-face meetings again  the members would be asked if they wanted to return to allowing five-minute slots.

It was agreed to replace the Authority’s ‘reference back’ procedure with a formal system of deferral so that officers would have time to test the validity or soundness of a decision being made by the committee contrary to the recommendation of a planning officer.

The members also accepted that if a parish council disagreed with an officer’s recommendation concerning a minor ‘householder development’  (such as alterations to existing dwellings) that application would no longer have to be referred to the planning committee. But the planning committee might still be asked to consider such an application if it was ‘called-in’ by a member or referred by an officer.

In June the Authority had already agreed that the frequency of planning committee meetings should be changed from monthly  to once every six weeks.

The chairman of the planning committee, Julie Martin, pointed out that the conversion of barns was often a contentious issue.

She said: ‘We are in a situation now where over the last two to three years a  half to two thirds of all completions and permissions are barn conversions and I don’t think that was actually our policy intention. That, to me, is extremely disappointing. The reason for this is that we are not getting other forms of housing coming forward. We have got to get to grips with that in the new Local Plan.’

Gary Smith, the Deputy Chief Executive, told the meeting that the problems they faced with seeing more houses built within the National Park – economic, political and now Covid-10 – added up to a perfect storm.

‘What we want and what we need is affordable housing and probably smaller properties. But what the builders and companies are telling us is that they can’t afford to build any, otherwise the sites are unviable.. That is a problem that none of us have come up with a brilliant answer to in the last 20 years.’

Should the chairman be seen as an impartial facilitator?

The following was read on behalf of the Association of Rural Communities at the beginning of the  meeting:

The Association of Rural Communities is very concerned that at the Authority’s planning meeting on November 17 the senior legal officer stated that the chairman could speak at the beginning of the committee’s discussion about a planning application.

It is generally understood that the chairman should be seen to be an impartial facilitator of such a meeting. That is why those chairing meetings are usually advised that, if they do want to express their views, they should do so at the end of the discussion.

In its own code of conduct the Authority does not provide any specific guidance for chairing planning committee meetings. But it does state: ‘It is important … that planning decisions are made openly, impartially, with sound judgement and for justifiable reasons. The aim of this code of good practice is to ensure that in the planning process there are no grounds for suggesting that a decision has been biased, partial or not well founded in any way. Do come to meetings with an open mind and demonstrate that you are open-minded.’

If the chairman expresses a strong opinion at the beginning of the discussion about an application, as happened on November 17, how is it possible to demonstrate that they are impartial and open-minded, and have come to the meeting intent on listening to others and allowing members to come to a consensus? Maybe there should be specific guidelines for those chairing planning committee meetings.

This was the Authority’s response read by its chairman, Neil Heseltine.

The Chair of Planning Committee is …a member of the committee and as such she is entitled to take part in the debate like any other member they are not merely as an impartial facilitator. There is nothing in legislation regarding local authority meetings or in the Authority’s standing orders which prevents the chair from speaking first during a debate.

The advice given by the legal advisor to the planning committee on 17th November was correct. … the recording of the application in question is currently available on the Authority’s website and it is clear that Mrs Martin spoke as part of the debate after the officer’s presentation, the public speaker and after members had had an opportunity to raise points for clarification.

Mrs Martin made it clear at the start of her comments that she was not making a proposal and that she did not subsequently move any motion either for or against the proposal.There is no evidence that Mrs Martin stifled or influenced the debate by speaking first.

The application was determined after a number of members had contributed to the debate and the recording of the item demonstrates that members came to their own view on the application when making a decision.

From the November 17 report

The chairman, Julie Martin, began the committee’s debate by  stating: ‘I want, as cultural heritage champion, just to make a few remarks about this application myself.’

At which Richmondshire District councillor (RDC) John Amsden broke in: ‘You are supposed to be just chairing the meeting… the chair should speak at the end of the debate… not at the beginning.’

The Authority’s legal officer, however, Claire Bevan, stated: ‘She is perfectly entitled to speak at the start of the debate.’And Mrs Martin continued and during her statement she said:  ‘I do feel that there are strong reasons for refusal of this application…’

Another RDC councillor, Richard Good commented: ‘I am surprised that you are allowed to speak because at other authority’s that I sit on, you would not be allowed to speak until the end.’

During the debate member, Ian  McPherson, agreed with her and stated: ‘I do pay a great deal of heed to what she ways with regard to matters of historical interest and impact because she is a member champion [and], as she mentioned, she is a consultant in this area. So I do give that a great deal of credence.’

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