Thursday, 13 August 2020

Council accused of ‘power grab’ over planning decisions

THE coalition running South Oxfordshire District Council has been accused of a “power grab” following a row about planning.

The opposition Conservatives say the ruling Liberal Democrat and Green Parties have brought in emergency powers to exclude parish councils from the council’s planning committee meetings.

These were put in place to allow the council to expedite the planning process during the coronavirus lockdown but the Tories say they overstep the mark and risk undermining local democracy.

Councillor Ian Snowdon, a Conservative who chairs the committee, said: “One of the most important features of our planning process here in South Oxfordshire has been the involvement of residents and applicants in applications that affect them. If parish councils have disagreed with the decision of the planning department, they have had the power to ask district councillors, sitting as the planning committee, to decide whether or not it should be accepted.

“As a member of that committee, I have found it invaluable to hear the case of applicants and objectors alike and to ask questions before making my mind up.”

Councillor Caroline Newton, deputy leader of the council’s Conservative group, said: “This is an outrageous affront to democracy. The Lib-Dems and Greens repeatedly claim to have been elected last year on the basis of local planning and now their administration is allowing local voices to be quashed. We understand the need for the district council to bring in new procedures in order to allow it to address the covid-19 emergency, but we simply don’t accept that depriving residents of their voice on planning matters contributes to that effort.

“It’s the antithesis of democracy, another example of the Lid-Dems failing to live up to their name. They need to revisit this decision immediately and give power back to local people.”

A council spokeswoman said: “When regulations were introduced allowing for the holding of virtual meetings, the priority for the council was to ensure it used a safe platform for the transmission of live meetings which would be accessible for members of the public.

“The software we use for our virtual meetings meant we couldn’t initially include invitations to external parties like towns and parishes, although we made it clear that they would be able to provide written statements, which many have done.

“The council has undertaken to review this arrangement after six months. It has also made clear that the operation will be kept under review with the ambition to return to public speaking. Officers are actively investigating and working on options to allow external parties like towns, parishes and members of the public to address the planning committee.

“We have made temporary changes to our planning processes that mean towns and parishes are involved in direct conversation with planning officers much earlier in the process, enabling them to highlight objections they might have at a stage where those issues may be more easily resolved with proposed developers and before the application is considered by the committee.”

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