How can we solve the problem of marathon planning meetings?

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A planning committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

Much gets written about how the planning system across the country is apparently broken, but not much gets written about how residents across the district sometimes have to sit through four or so hours of a committee meeting to get three minutes to comment on individual planning applications.

I’ve been a member of the city council’s planning committee a number of times in the past seven years, and have attended meetings in other capacities since 2003.

When the agenda for Tuesday’s planning committee was published my first reaction was “I’m glad I’m not a committee member” – although my relief was short-lived, as I quickly noticed I was hoping to speak on the final two applications to be decided on the evening.

That said, I don’t care – on a personal level – whether I have to hang around from 6.30pm to 10.30pm or 11.30pm before getting the chance to speak.

Nobody made me stand for election and part or the role is making representations on planning applications on behalf of residents.

Cllr Neil Baker: Planning meetings drag on

And, unlike the actual committee members, I don’t have to keep up my concentration for however many hours Tuesday evening’s meeting may last.

It’s also unreasonable for council staff to have to, in some cases, start their working day at 9am and finish at midnight.

Public service is all well and good, but there are limits!

It would be interesting to see what the outcome would be if, for example, a council planning officer raised an employment issue regarding working from 6.30pm until 11.30pm, without a break, at a lengthy meeting.

For reasons I’ll return to, the issue of councillors concentrating increasingly worries me.

But the biggest issue has to be having residents waiting around for hours, not being able to turn up just before the application they are interested is heard because there cannot be a timetable on the night, and if they are relying on public transport, perhaps having to leave before they’ve achieved anything.

That cannot be acceptable and something needs to be done to stop these marathon-length meetings.

They are bad for public involvement, bad for transparency and potentially bad for decision-making.

None of this is new, of course, and I’m not alone in having issues with how the planning committee itself works.

I think it was in the summer of 2011 when I first discussed it with now-Labour group leader Alan Baldock (in a Welsh university, of all places) and that was some eight years after trying to stay awake in the chamber with a pen and notebook in my hand so I could fill late pages of that week’s local papers.

But the lack of change hasn’t, for once, chiefly been down to the general “swimming through treacle” speed of local government. It has been because there is no one easy solution which doesn’t create fresh problems.

My current view, which changes more often than a developer applies for student housing somewhere in the city, is to just have more meetings of the planning committee to keep them shorter. There are currently about 12 a year, or one each month.

There are those that will correctly respond that having more meetings of the planning committee would cost taxpayers more money.

However, compared to how much taxpayers may have to fork out if members of the committee could be shown to have made a decision while half asleep (if not completely zonked out) and it were to get overturned through the courts, such an amount may be relatively insignificant.

Three other options that come to mind have drawbacks:

  • Increasing powers of delegation to planning officers, so they can grant or refuse applications without troubling committee, would raise eyebrows. As it is, the vast majority of applications get decided outside of the committee – indeed, that’s the default position unless certain triggers are hit for a committee referral.
  • Reducing the number of councillors on the planning committee may tick some boxes, but the fewer councillors, the more the unwarranted accusations of bungs and the like will be bandied about because each remaining one would carry more influence.
  • Reducing the number of public speakers is always going to be tricky, not least because (unless things have changed since I last checked) Canterbury allows more public speakers at planning per application than anywhere else in Kent and the culture of public input on the night is well-established.

What needs to happen is a proper look at how committee meetings operate, with proper engagement with the community – and, indeed, developers – to explain why changes are needed.

Otherwise, yet again, nothing will happen due to concerns about slashing the democratic rights of residents to take part.

Even without worries about lengthy meetings and all of the potential pitfalls that come with them, the process also needs to be brought into the 21st century to make it as easy to follow as possible.

For many people will only ever attend a committee if they are applying for/objecting to an application for the one time in their lives. For all but the most hardcore of council-watchers, all meetings seem pretty weird, with planning committee perhaps at the top of the list!

So I do hope, although I won’t hold my breath, that a system can be brought in which is easy to follow, open, transparent and fair on everyone.

If that can be achieved, more may take part in the planning process and more may realise the issues all planning authorities have with balancing the desires of residents with planning law and central government’s ever-changing hopes with regards to development.

Neil Baker is a Conservative city councillor who represents Tankerton. He is chairman of the council’s community committee.

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