North Northamptonshire Council to press ahead with 'undemocratic' planning meeting rules

Just one member of the public will be guaranteed the right to speak against any application

North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) say it's 'not appropriate' to increase the number of people allowed to speak at contentious planning meetings, despite claims it's undemocratic.

The was huge public criticism of the authority last year when just one person was given the chance to speak against a controversial warehouse plan next to Weekley Hall Wood in Kettering, who was from the Butterfly Conservation Trust.

More than 200 Save Weekley Hall Wood protestors had gathered outside but none were allowed to address councillors who eventually deferred the decision.

Left, protests in Kettering, and right, councillors voting at a meeting in Corby

NNC promised a full review of the planning system in response to a range of issues, including claims of maladministration of the Kettering meeting.

But it's recommended that, at a democracy and standards committee meeting tonight (Tuesday) in Wellingborough, councillors should decide no changes are made to the number of public speakers at planning meetings.

Robert Dixon, from the Save Weekley Hall Wood team, looked back at every minuted planning meeting since June last year across the North Northamptonshire Council area. He found that meetings, with the exception of those held in Thrapston where more applications were heard, lasted on average about an hour.

Mr Dixon said: "There should be more time for public speakers.

"What this shows is that there is time for this. These meetings are not excessively long."

Under the council's proposed planning committee public participation policy, for each application councillors would be able to be addressed by one planning officer, one third party speaker for and against a proposal, one parish/town councillor, one ward councillor and the applicant and their agent. Public speakers are given three minutes to address the committee.

The rules would leave any increase in public speakers at the chair of the meeting's discretion - but that would not be guaranteed and was not allowed at August's heated Kettering planning meeting.

Mr Dixon fears it means members of the public could be silenced when big planning meetings are heard.

He said: "It's totally undemocratic.

"It may be that the chair has learnt his lesson (and allows more people to speak) but there's no guarantee that's the case, and that's the problem.

"The council may well say that people get the chance to put their objections in writing but there's a world of difference between that and allowing people to speak."

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 set to be 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."

At a meeting last year Green Party councillor Emily Fedorowycz suggested that more speakers should be allowed to air their views at council meetings.

She proposed to amend the constitution to give thirty minutes per application for public speakers - with each speaker given three minutes to talk.

She said: "We are public servants. If there's a controversial planning application, we should be able to have more speakers."

But her suggestion was voted down, with other councillors saying it could mean meetings went on for too long.

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 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."

Save Weekley Hall Wood member Robert Dixon told this newspaper that his research had shown there was, on average, just a handful of speakers at each meeting since June last year.

He said that, given only controversial applications tend to attract high numbers of public speakers, it was highly unlikely that increasing the number of speakers allowed would mean meetings would go on for too long.

Tonight's meeting takes place in Wellingborough's council chamber, starting at 7pm.