Full review of 'unwieldy' planning system at North Northamptonshire Council promised by executive amid public criticism
A full review of planning services in North Northamptonshire is under way.
Concerns were raised by several speakers and elected members at the North Northamptonshire full council meeting on Wednesday (September 29) over a range of planning issues including maladministration of a Kettering planning meeting, worries over the accuracy of officers' reports and the 'unwieldy' number of planning committees.
Cllr Martin Griffiths, the former Borough Council of Wellingborough leader, called for a 'root and branch' review of the system, about which several members from across the political spectrum have privately raised concerns in recent months with Northants Telegraph reporters.
During Wednesday's meeting, Green Party councillor Emily Fedorowycz had suggested that more speakers should be allowed to air their views at council meetings. Her proposal followed last month's planning meeting at which an application to house a leather interiors manufacturer on a meadow next to Weekley Hall Wood was being considered by committee members. Despite two hundred people protesting against the proposal, and several asking to air their views at the meeting, only one person was allowed to speak.
That person was not from the thousands-strong Save Weekley Hall Wood campaign group, but from the Butterfly Conservation Trust.
Councillor Fedorowycz's motion proposed to amend the constitution to give thirty minutes per application for public speakers - with each speaker given three minutes to talk.
Several members of the public spoke in favour of Cllr Fedorowycz's motion.
Frankie O'Dowd, a member of the Save Weekley Hall Wood campaign group, said that she had received an apology from NNC monitoring officer Adele Wylie for what she said was the 'maladministration' of the public speaking element of previous planning meeting, at which Ms O'Dowd had requested to speak but was later unable to do so.
Ms O'Dowd said: "It's demonstrably not working for matters of public interest when multiple people want to speak
"Although I had proved maladministration before the meeting, I was told the chair wouldn't allow me to speak.
"Amending the constitution to allow five people to speak for three minutes would be demonstrably more democratic."
There were also written submissions from members of the public. Liane Robinson said: "I feel that the current situation is actually undemocratic.
"We need to believe that decisions affecting our daily lives are being made after full consideration of all available contributing aspects - facts, impacts, community feeling, professional organisation findings, scientific findings, commercial needs etc.
"It is impractical and unjust to think that all these aspects could be covered by one person. Even if it were possible, the message would no doubt be diluted and probably tainted - therefore its value reduced."
John Padwick, in another written statement, said: "I understand that allowing every objector to have their three minutes could sometimes be unmanageable when there is a large group of people wanting to have their say. However it is surely not right that when a host of people wish to speak, often holding different views and slants on the application, and coming from different positions, that only one person should be allowed to speak against."
During a lengthy debate, former Wellingborough Council leader Cllr Martin Griffiths, who now sits as an independent after a botched leadership ballot meant he was unceremoniously ditched as deputy leader by his Conservative group called for a full shakedown of the authority's planning committees. Among his worries are the fact there are five planning committees on the authority and the leadership of some of the committees.
He said: "There should be a root and branch review of planning.
"We had proposals for two committees We now have an unwieldy planning regime which is very frustrating. There has to be a better way.
"With over a decade of experience, I feel very passionately about this."
He said that Wellingborough's planning department had been transformed by 'listening to residents.'
"You might think this council knows everything, but we don't. We must remember we are public servants who must listen to the people of North Northamptonshire. It's not a weakness to take a recommendation from an opposition group."
Cllr Dorothy Maxwell said that it was 'not fair' to expect residents to stay late into the night to listen to all the speakers at planning meetings.
Cllr Fedorowycz said: "We are public servants. If there's a controversial planning application, we should be able to have more speakers."
Cllr Andy Mercer spoke about a planning meeting which ran into five hours. He said: "One public speaker is too low. We should have one from each side.. but what's being proposed could mean thirty minutes of public speakers per application."
The motion was defeated and planning meetings will continue with only one public speaker, or more at the discretion of the chair.
Members at the meeting also debated whether to spend £666k on a new development of homes for ex-servicemen in Cheltenham Road. Work on the site had started after being given the go-ahead by the ecology consultant but then three days later, Great Crested Newts were discovered on the site and work was stopped. A year on, and a huge ruse in building costs means that the price has risen from £3,195,000 to £3,861,380.
In a debate over whether the council should stump up the extra cash to ensure the project can re-start, Councillor David Jenney said: “Members will remember I was critical of the quality of this report and I'm still critical of the quality of this report.
"There are many things that are missing from it.
"There are matters which need to be bottomed-out. We need to understand why the ecology professional allowed the scheme to start and then why they changed their mind three days later.
“There's a possibility that there may be some lack of professionalism on that consultant's behalf.
"I have had a discussion with the executive director and the monitoring officer and we have come to the conclusion that further work needs to be done but we shouldn't hold up the scheme."
Cllr Jenney said he was also concerned that the public purse may have to 'pay twice' for the cost increase - having had to cover the furlough payments of any builders that might have been laid off during the time the homes were supposed to be under construction.
Executive member for growth and regeneration Cllr David Brackenbury, the recent replacement for Cllr Steven North who resigned to 'take a break' from the front line of politics, said that a detailed review of all planning services across the county was under way.
"There will be a meeting of all the planning chairs where we can discuss how best to proceed," he said.
"We will look at what we have done well and what we haven't done well.
"That will be an interesting meeting and its findings will reflect what's carried-out."
The debate came at the same meeting that senior Tories were branded 'dictators' after they voted for a proposal to move full council meetings from evenings to daytimes.