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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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Review calls for changes to Cumbrian council's planning process

Alleged collusion between a developer and a planning officer and a lack of respect towards the public have been revealed as some of the reasons behind a major review of Allerdale’s planning services.

Mark Fryer photo
Mark Fryer

The results of an independent review have now recommended slashing the number of councillors on Allerdale’s development panel, as well as implementing training and improving key aspects of the decision-making process.

The review was ordered by the council itself after there were issues last year with the way development panel meetings were conducted, including the way members interacted with the public.

Concerns were then raised by some councillors about alleged collusion between a planning officer and a developer.

Councillor Mark Fryer, executive member responsible for planning, told a meeting held to consider the review’s findings, that his own experience of development panel meetings has caused him concern.

“I represented my ward over a significant development and I was taken aback by the behaviour of some of the councillors and how some members of the public were treated,” he said.

“Some councillors showed a lack of respect in how they spoke to planning officers and members of the public.”

The review did not focus on specific issues, but looked at all aspects of the planning service across the council, including how meetings ran and the work of planning officers.

Areas including training for councillors, engagement with the public and the speed of the decision-making process have been recommended and are set to be improved under an action plan agreed by the council’s political executive.

The group will also recommend to full council that the development panel should have its membership halved to 10, and that a planning policy working group should be set up.

Mr Fryer said: “The peer review challenge was a pretty brave decision by us, because there was no doubt there would be some criticism of the way the council operated with planning.

“The reduction of the development panel numbers is probably the biggest shake-up we could have in a council of this size.”

He added that he was concerned some development panel members were influenced by predetermination, particularly around application for wind turbines.

Among the areas praised in the peer report was the council’s emerging joint venture, which will see it work with an investment and development company to sell off surplus council land for regeneration.

The meeting heard that, while the council’s constitution made training compulsory for all committee members, that was not currently enforced. The council will now step up its procedures.

The decisions to reduce the development panel and create a planning policy working group are due to be agreed by full council on May 14, when their membership will also be decided.

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