St Edmundsbury Borough Council has been accused of introducing an ‘undemocratic’ process for deciding planning matters.
A ‘delegation panel’ now considers, in private, which applications the Development Control Committee will hear and which ones will be decided by officers acting under delegated powers.
The only exception is ‘major’ developments, generally those with 10 or more dwellings, which will always be referred to the committee, which sits in public.
There is no right of appeal against the decision of the panel, which consists of a committee chairman and/or vice chairman and any ward members who express an interest in writing.
Troston resident Roger Anderson, who is also a parish councillor, has labelled the new system, introduced at the beginning of this month, ‘very undemocratic’.
He said: “The Government has claimed that it wants to see more localism. St Edmundsbury is going in the opposite direction and centralising power in the hands of planning bureaucrats.”
“My understanding is that ‘major’ means 10 houses or more. But in a small village, even five houses can have a pretty big impact,” he added.
The system being open to misuse and the possibility of more controversial plans being approved without ever going before the committee, which previously considered all applications with issues of ‘material planning’, are among his concerns.
“We’ve got a proposed development in Troston which may have 10 houses on it but it is likely to be divided into two separate applications - so it might not be treated as ‘major’ and we might not get a hearing by the committee,” he said.
He added: “The powers of borough councillors is also being undermined by the new system. In the past, if the planning committee went against the recommendation of an officer, that tended to be the end of it. Now the officers will draw up a risk assessment report on the committee’s decision, meaning that it will have to be resubmitted to the next meeting for, in effect, a second hearing.”
A council spokeswoman said the system, which was already in effect in Forest Heath, was introduced in St Edmundsbury to streamline the councils’ planning services and improve efficiency within the planning process.
Fiona Mannion, of the Town and Country Planning Association, said: “A fair and efficient planning system must be seen with the context of a democratic society where public consent is key. We need robust and transparent decision-making through democratically accountable representatives, but the planning process itself must fully embrace participative democracy if it is serious about reconnecting with communities.”