'Attack on democracy' as bid to let more speak at North Northamptonshire Council planning meetings denied

Opposition councillors asked for just one more person to be able to have their say - but the request was refused
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Opposition parties say a decision not to guarantee to let more people speak at North Northamptonshire Council planning meetings is an 'attack on democracy'.

A review of the council's planning system was launched last year after a number of issues, including those surrounding a contentious warehouse application meeting in Kettering.

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There was widespread criticism after just one person was allowed to speak against IM Kelly's bid to develop a site near Weekley Hall Wood, despite 200 protesters gathering outside.

Last night's meeting.Last night's meeting.
Last night's meeting.

More people are allowed to speak at the meeting chairman's discretion, but he refused to allow more to have their say.

Labour, Green and independent councillors have argued that more people should have the guaranteed right to speak, whether in favour of or against a contentious decision, and requested that the number guaranteed be increased. Having previously asked for the number to be increased to three for and three against - which was voted down last year - they proposed an amendment to the council's planning committee public participation policy at a democracy and standards committee meeting last night (Tuesday).

They asked for the number to increased by just one, to allow two people to speak both for and against applications - but the request was voted down by the ruling Conservatives.

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The council's Constitutional Working Group (CWG) met in December to consider revisions to how planning meetings are administrated and operated.

But they decided it was not appropriate to increase the number of public speakers as it stands.

A report discussed by councillors said: "CWG did consider whether the default number of public speakers be increased, however it was not felt appropriate to increase at this time.

"CWG noted that the chair had discretion to allow additional public contributions, and the issuing of the guidance note would assist chairs in determining whether it was appropriate to exercise their discretion."

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Cllr Emily Fedorowycz (Green), who proposed the amendment, said: “More speakers can be allowed but only at the chair's discretion and this places too much power in the hands of one individual. There should be no doubt in democracy. I have seen first hand chair’s discretion fail to allow more speakers, and I want to ensure that we safeguard residents against this injustice in the future.”

Cllr Lyn Buckingham (Lab), who seconded the bid, said: “This revision would have allowed greater democracy in the local planning system which seems to have failed to look at the bigger picture."

Two members of the public attended and spoke in favour of allowing more public speakers. One said they received a formal apology from NNC as they were denied their right to speak at a planning meeting last year.

One speaker, Robert Dixon, said: “I’m aware some councillors are concerned that allowing more than one third party speaker for and against each application could make these meetings too long. However, the facts don’t support that concern.

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"I have analysed the minutes of every NNC planning committee meeting since June 1. Excluding Thrapston, planning meetings are lasting about an hour. An hour is not very long. There is clearly scope for these meetings to be a little longer.”

Cllr Dez Dell, who watched the meeting from the public gallery, said: “I’m disappointed that Emily’s amendment did not pass. The importance of allowing multiple public speakers was proved in the Weekley Hall Wood planning meeting. Relying on a chair's discretion is undemocratic.The public speakers at this meeting were excellent but their points seemed lost when it came to the vote.”

A decision was also made to increase the number of objections that are needed before a planning application can be heard by a planning committee from three to five. Anything below that will be decided by officers “under delegated powers” behind closed doors.

Kettering's Labour Party group said last night's decisions were an 'attack on democracy' by NNC.

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A spokesman said: "Both decisions reduce the ability of local communities to have their voice in the planning process, and are fundamentally undemocratic."

And independent councillor Martin Griffiths said: "We should be welcoming the public to be a part of local democracy, not excluding them. Emily's amendment to allow up to four speakers was totally workable."