(Deputy Monitoring Officer) To consider the attached report (STD-001-2017/18).
The Deputy Monitoring Officer, S Hill, presented a report on the new Planning Code of Practice.
S Hill reported that the Planning Protocol was last reviewed in 2007, and the advent of the Localism Act in 2011 had provided further clarification on the role of Members, interests in planning matters and the types of interests that were now required to be disclosed. The Council had been advised by Counsel that there was a minimum of 18 areas that the Council’s new Protocol should cover, and this had formed the basic structure of the revised Code before the Committee. It was also highlighted that there could be possible changes to the structure of the Council’s Planning (Sub-)Committees in future to meet the expected demand from publication of the Council’s Local Plan. The paragraphs within the proposed Code would also be numbered prior to publication in the Council’s Constitution.
S Hill stated that the draft Code of Planning Practice, attached as an Appendix to the report, would replace the current Planning Protocol. Complaints related to Planning was, by far, the most numerous and therefore it was important that clear advice was provided to Members. The Committee was requested to consider and comment on the Code prior to its review by the Constitution Working Group on 28 September 2017 and approval by the Council on 2 November 2017.
The Monitoring Officer, C O’Boyle, advised the Committee that District Councillors who took a public stand on certain sites as a Town or Parish Councillor did not necessarily have to declare a prejudicial/pecuniary interest at District Council Planning meetings. The Localism Act 2011 permitted Councillors to hold a view about a particular site prior to taking a planning decision on it. Councillors could attend open evenings on applications organised by the Applicant, but they would need to conduct themselves appropriately, such as asking pertinent questions on the application. Where possible, Members should request that a Planning Officer accompany them to such meetings, but at the very least they should inform Planning Officers prior to attending such meetings. It would also be good practice to make notes of the meeting afterwards, highlighting comments made and actions taken. S Hill added that Members should make it clear when they attend such meetings that they were there to ask questions and gather information only.
The Independent Member, D Cooper, could not perceive any benefit from Councillors attending these types of meetings, as public perception was necessarily different from legal advice. Parish Cllr Williamson added that the location was also relevant, e.g. a five-star Hotel would look worse for such a meeting than a Town or Village Hall. S Hill reminded the Committee that the Code was, out of necessity, a broad framework but Members could always get advice regarding particular circumstances from either the Monitoring or Deputy Monitoring Officer.
The Committee acknowledged that there was a difference between a public meeting on a particular planning application and a private meeting with a developer. C O’Boyle advised that a public meeting would proceed regardless of any Councillor attendance, and for large public meetings it could be beneficial for the Councillor to attend as it would assist further conversations with constituents after the meeting. The Independent Member, P Adams, cautioned that Councillors should consider the public perception from attending private meetings with Developers.
Parish Cllr J Whybrow noted that the Code made no mention of Town or Parish Councillors. C O’Boyle explained that the Code was primarily concerned with the behaviour of District Councillors, rather than Town or Parish Councillors, as they were the ones making the decision. Cllr Surtees opined that local Councils were a statutory consultee, and often made written representations on planning applications, but often did not attend the meeting to speak in favour of their views. S Hill stated that the Town & Parish Council Charter codified how to deal with Local Council comments, but Loughton Town Council was instigating a review.
On the issue of pre-prepared speeches from Members in planning meetings, C O’Boyle advised that bullet points and notes on the agenda were fine, but having a pre-prepared speech which was delivered regardless of the concessions already agreed in the meeting did not give a good impression, particularly on the webcast of the meeting. S Hill also warned that Councillors should exercise some caution when tweeting or posting on Facebook about planning applications.
In respect of the order that agenda items were dealt with, it was highlighted that items had been moved in the past for the benefit of Arboricultural Officers. C O’Boyle stated that section (xiv) of the Code permitted the (Sub-)Committee to amend the order that items were dealt with; however, public speakers should not be unduly inconvenienced by this and Arboricultural Officers should wait their turn if the public were registered to speak on earlier items. In addition, items should not be deferred simply because particular Councillors had not yet arrived at the meeting. S Hill added that if the majority of the public were in attendance for one particular item then due consideration should be given to dealing with that item earlier in the meeting.
S Hill reminded the Committee that Members could not be prevented from attending Planning (Sub-)Committees simply on the basis that they had not attended the relevant Member training courses. C O’Boyle stated that this was an issue for the political groups to encourage attendance at Planning training courses by all of their Members.
The Committee endorsed the document, subject to a couple of minor amendments to deal with:
(i) a paragraph numbering regime;
(ii) clarification of the Code’s relationship to the advice on gifts and hospitality for Members; and
(iii) best practice advice to contact Planning Officers in cases where a Member was contemplating any pre-application discussion with an Applicant.
(1) That the attached revised new Code of Planning Practice be recommended for consideration by the Constitution Working Group at its meeting scheduled for 28 September 2017, and include the following requested amendments:
(a) a paragraph numbering regime;
(b) clarification of the Code’s relationship to advice on gifts and hospitality for Members; and
(c) best practice advice to contact Planning Officers in cases where a Member was contemplating any pre-application discussions with an Applicant.