Bosses defend planning services

PLANNING chiefs were given the chance to defend their service following serious concerns from local communities.

Suffolk Coastal District Council’s Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee met at Ufford Park Hotel in Melton, near Woodbridge, yesterday.

Members are currently looking at how the authority’s planning service can be improved and heard from a number of representatives, including head of planning services Philip Ridley.

He was responding to claims made at a meeting towards the end of last month in which communities raised a number of issues.

Among the concerns were that many decisions were made “behind closed doors” and that residents’ views were ignored.

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There was also a call for better communication and greater feedback - especially for an explanation of why applications were approved when there were serious reservations from local communities.

Speaking at yesterday’s meeting Mr Ridley said he believed they had an expert team but acknowledged there was room for improvement.

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He assured all views were taken into account and that all recommendations were made according to national and local planning guidelines.

He also outlined a number of changes that he hoped would go some way to addressing people’s perceptions of the planning service.

One of these was making all planning documents available online - something that should be ready at the beginning of next year.

“There is no doubt that once this facility is in place the public will be able to access much more information for themselves from home rather than visiting the offices or the parish clerk,” he said.

Meanwhile he said they were now writing to town and parish councils explaining why the planning sub-committees had made a decision contrary to the views expressed by the local community.

“This is a positive move and I hope it will enable people to fully understand why decisions are made and alleviate some of the perceptions that people have,” Mr Ridley said.

He also stressed that no decisions were made in isolation but in consultation with a number of individuals.

He said the authority was hoping to start a process similar to Waveney where town and parish councils were involved in greater pre-application discussions with applicants for major developments that might cause concerns.

“These meetings have proved to be beneficial and have allowed members in the area to get a heads up on emerging issues,” he said. “This process allows everyone to be made aware of emerging proposals and the local community to understand the proposed details.”

Mr Ridley also suggested an e-mail alert should be set up to make interested parties aware of any changes to an application.

He said he believed communication between customers was essentially good and stressed that any town or parish council could get in touch if they were struggling to make representations in time.

“They should contact us and in the vast majority of cases we can agree to make an extension,” he said.

The scrutiny committee will meet again at a later date - which is yet to be set - to discuss its findings and make recommendations.

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