A COUNCIL could lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs over its planning decisions, a councillor has claimed.

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Suffolk Wildlife Trust is due to cut back on the level of advice it gives to planning authorities throughout the county.

In a Mid Suffolk District Council executive meeting on Monday councillors discussed the problem and how it would affect their planning department.

Opposition leader Andrew Stringer said: “We have a duty to protect wildlife and protect species and we want it remaining a strong priority for this authority.

“If we do not get the advice right to protect applicants and protect species then we are open to legal challenges.”

He said the council should look at employing a freelance ecologist to provide advice.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust contacted the council last November to tell them about the changes, which would see it provide advice only in what the council calls ‘limited circumstances’.

The council has said it would be open to potential legal action and subsequent ‘financial consequences’ and complaints if appropriate ecology advice is not part of its planning decisions.

Derrick Haley, leader at Mid Suffolk said: “We need to find someone to do it, which is why I wanted to ask the question in the meeting, but that is the first time we have seen it brought before the executive.

“It’s not a big risk but we have to cover it and identify someone to take it onboard.”

James Meyer, conservation planner for Suffolk Wildlife Trust said: “Our letter to local planning authorities was to clarify our role as a consultee in the planning process and ensure that our work focuses on applications where our expertise can have the greatest benefits in protecting and enhancing biodiversity.

“We are not withdrawing from being involved in planning applications; rather, we are trying to ensure that our and the council’s time and resources are being used in the most efficient and beneficial way.

“We have explained to the planning authorities what types of applications we wish to be consulted on and also where else they can obtain ecological information.”

A spokeswoman for Mid Suffolk said: “The council is exploring alternative sources of ecological advice for those lesser applications upon which Suffolk Wildlife Trust is unlikely to respond to in future.

“In each case the council will consider what information is available within all the application documentation, including that provided by applicants with their applications as well as Natural England and others, in order to safeguard its statutory duties.

“In the circumstances risk will be considered on a case by case basis.” The changes to planning advice will come into effect by the end of the month.

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