I note with concern the proposed amendment to the constitution of East Devon District Council, to be discussed at the upcoming development management committee meeting on Tuesday, December 10.
Under this amendment, planning officers would be awarded delegated powers to amend Section 106 requirements voted on by the planning committee before the signing of the legal agreement.
Such powers could be exercised where obligations are deemed not necessary to make the development acceptable.
Whilst this amendment might be appropriate in some clear-cut cases, it is potentially open to misuse and could leave elected members powerless to ensure that the democratic process is executed according to their wishes.
For example, the planning committee recently resolved to approve an outline application for up to 40 houses plus doctor’s surgery at Newton Poppleford.
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The committee made it clear that they wished the surgery element of this development to be enforced, despite it being neither necessary nor proportionate, and possible wording of a planning obligation to secure the surgery was discussed at length.
The law states that the council is not permitted to seek planning obligations unless they are necessary to make the development acceptable, based on the fundamental principle that planning permission cannot be sold.
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Similarly, planning permission cannot be bought, meaning that the developer cannot offer something that is unnecessary in planning terms, even on a unilateral basis.
This leaves the council in a very difficult position in trying to negotiate the legal agreement according to the committee’s instructions, whilst remaining within the law.
However, the proposed amendment would potentially allow officers to remove the surgery from the legal agreement, contrary to the committee’s wishes, without the requirement to seek a resolution to vary the original decision.
It would clearly be detrimental to the transparency of local government to allow planning obligations to be altered outside of a public meeting, and would render the planning committee mere bystanders once the initial resolution had been passed.
Such a move would compromise the democratic process and further tarnish the council’s reputation, already under scrutiny, in the eyes of the electorate.
For the sake of democracy and transparency, I would urge councillors to reject the proposed amendment and continue with the current system, which has worked perfectly well to date.
The very minor inconvenience of taking two minutes of a committee meeting to rubber-stamp non-controversial alterations to planning obligations is a small price to pay in keeping control of the planning system within the hands of elected individuals rather than unelected officers.