Changes to the way the public can relate to its planning committee could be seen as an erosion of democracy or accountability, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority members were told this week.
A review of efficiency and effectiveness of planning committee arrangements with 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 said: “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-19 – 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.”
ARC News Service