Update 20 May 2019. Shropshire Council has agreed to merge the north and central planning committees from September. Many councillors voted against the move, including – as far as I could see – all members of the South Planning Committee. The south committee is south for now but the executive has made no secret of its desire to progress to a single committee for the entire unitary area.
The South Planning Committee is safe from the latest Shropshire Council attack on democracy – for now. But council leaders are determined to merge the two committees that cover the Shrewsbury area and North Shropshire into one. The justification is very thin. The paperwork makes it clear that the council’s ambition is a single planning committee for the entire county. They also want to make more decisions behind closed doors rather than in a democratic forum. And part of the justification is that Tory councillors are reluctant to give a day a month to serve on a planning committee. I think it is also to ensure that the Tories have control of all three planning committees.
This is an attack on democracy. Planning one of the most important functions of any council. It is one of the most public facing duties and one where residents are most closely engaged with decision making.
The three planning committees cover very different territories. They must be balanced to represent the political makeup of the councillors in the area.
The South Planning Committee covers an area with small market towns and dispersed hamlets, with much of the land within the area of outstanding natural beauty. Many of the applications considered by the committee are small but they are no less sensitive or important for that. We have three Lib Dem members, one independent and seven Conservatives. The Tories chair and vicechair.
The North Planning Committee’s territory extends from Oswestry to Ellesmere, Wem and Market Drayton. It has ten Conservative members and one independent. The Tories chair and vicechair.
The Central Planning Committee covers the rapidly expanding county town of Shrewsbury and the large villages nearby. The applications it looks at are generally larger, sometimes much larger, than those in the South. Labour chair and the Lib Dems vicechair. There are four Labour members, two Lib Dems and just three Conservatives. There should be five Conservative members but as council leader Peter Nutting told the Shropshire Star, dedicating one day a month to planning committees is too much for his Tory colleagues:
“It has become hard to recruit members to sit on the committees lately because people don’t seem to really realise that they are a whole day a month. Not only do you have all the papers to scrutinise, you then have a whole morning of site visits and then the afternoon meeting itself. By doing this we hope there will be fewer meetings, but the agendas for the meetings that do go ahead will be better.”
Peter should come to the South Planning Committee. Most months we go out on site visits on Monday and Tuesday mornings and attend the planning committee on Tuesday afternoon. Preparation involves not just reading the paperwork, we also need to go through all the online documents, along with the public and specialist comments. It can be done in half a day, sometimes it takes a lot longer.
Planning committees don’t just accept or reject applications. They also modify them. Sometimes that can be done on the spot with the agreement of the applicant or agent. Although direct negotiations don’t take place, if we propose a change and the agent is nodding, we make approval subject to that change. At other times, members defer an application for further discussions between officers and the applicant. It is very much teamwork.
Officers in the council, and some of the political leadership, have been determined for years to merge the three committees into one. Executives fear that there will be more costs from appeals if democratically elected representatives turn down an application. There is no evidence that this is the case and planning officers also lose appeals.
It is not recognised by the council that planning committees also approve applications that officers want to reject. In South Shropshire, this is often single self-build affordable housing for a family with a local connection. To be with their elderly parents, to go back to the community in which they were born or to live where they work. But Shropshire Council drew up the rules for this housing so tightly, that officers often feel obliged to turn the application down. The planning committee has taken a different view many times approving desperatley needed affordable housing.
This is the context for tomorrow’s debate on cutting the number of planning committees from three to two. It is the wrong move. It is an anti-democratic move.
Council officers say it will lead to more consistent decision making. That doesn’t mean it is better decision making. It reduces the council’s engagement with local democracy. They say that many neighbouring authorities have a single planning committee. They provide no evidence that these committees deliver better planning decisions than an area planning committee system.
The political balance of the proposed combination of the North and Central planning committees will mean the chair and vicechair will be Conservatives, giving the Tories control of all three committees.
That’s one reason why this proposal is being driven forward. There are two other reasons. The executives want to cut costs. They also want to drive forward an economic growth plan to make Shropshire just like any Midlands county. Sprawling housing developments, huge business and industrial estates so that people want to move here, bigger roads and – the council leader’s obsession – a Shropshire Airport.
This proposal will be debated on the same day that Shropshire Council debates a petition calling for a climate change emergency and three motions calling for the same.
It is time for a rethink. Think local. Be local.
Shropshire councillors get a basic allowance of £11,514 a year, plus expenses.