Planning service under the microscope

PARISH and town councils have called for an overhaul of a local authority’s planning service in a bid to tackle the mistrust that has developed in some 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 representations from Aldeburgh, Bredfield, Kesgrave, Melton, Middleton and Trimley St Martin town and parish councils along with six district councillors.

While on the whole most said relations with planning officers were usually harmonious there were occasions when they felt there were serious shortfalls.

The meeting heard there was a perception that many decisions were made behind closed doors between developers and planners and that residents’ views were a “mere inconvenience”.

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It was told that all too often applications were given the go-ahead despite objections from local residents, that letters, e-mails and telephone calls were ignored, consultation times were too short and the district council did not act quickly enough to enforce breaches in planning conditions.

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

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Representatives also said they would like to be involved more in the pre-application consultation in an effort to identify contentious issues and felt officers needed better local knowledge.

Peter Tilley, clerk to Bredfield Parish Council, said there currently seemed to be a lack of accountability at the council and therefore a breakdown in trust between the authority and members of the public.

“Suffolk Coastal need to review the planning process in its entirety,” he said. “All the best systems are open, frank, honest and consistent. Currently this system is non of those things.”

Geof Butterwick, chairman of planning at Melton Parish Council, said: “There is a suspicion that a lot of planning deals are done behind closed doors and what the public see is the mere rubber stamping of it.

“It is difficult to avoid the perception that the development control system looks at the views of local residents as an unwelcome distraction from granting applications as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile John Morris, vice-chairman of Middleton Parish Council, said there was a danger the work of parish and town authorities could be damaged if applications were passed without taking their views into account.

“The perception that the parish council has no teeth undermines the other work that we do,” he said. “It means less people will want to become parish councillors.”

The meeting also heard from Ivan Jowers, chairman of the planning sub-committees at the district council, who acknowledged there were problems - particularly with enforcement - but said the current system worked well.

However he did say there needed to be a better relationship between all those involved in the planning process.

He continued: “Many of the adverse comments have been made by people who rarely or never attend meetings where the decisions are made. To those who do attend I often ask for their views and they say they never realised how in depth we consider each application. We make decisions in a professional manner.

“Objections by town and parish councils often say we don’t want any change. That is not an option. What about our young people? It is easy for us to say ‘no change’ but we have got to plan for the future.”

A second meeting will now be held on October 4 where the council’s head of planning services will give a response, after which the committee will make its recommendations.

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