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Mid Suffolk and Babergh joint local plan: Fears over 'lack of public scrutiny' during coronavirus crisis

Concerns have been voiced over the lack of opportunity for public scrutiny at a council due to the coronavirus crisis.

Fears are also being raised over the lack of public opportunity to debate a key plan which will inform future housing developments in Mid Suffolk and Babergh.

Rachel Eburne, Mid Suffolk District Council Green group leader, questioned the Conservative and Independent administration during Monday’s cabinet meeting on whether it would be feasible to have a full council meeting before July, to prevent a five-month gap between meetings.

Mid Suffolk and Babergh District Councils are based at Endeavour House in Ipswich
Mid Suffolk and Babergh District Councils are based at Endeavour House in Ipswich

She said: “Under normal situations, you have to get special dispensation if you go for six months without attending a council meeting.

“This means that some councillors will be at risk if they are not able to attend the July meeting.

“More importantly, there are very few public occasions at which we can ask unconditional questions of the administration – and at this critical time, this is not supportive of a healthy democratic process.

“With regards to the draft joint local plan, there has been an ongoing working group between council officers and members but, again, nothing in public.

“The lack of a joint local plan is often cited as a reason to approve locally controversial planning applications and it is therefore even more vital that we can get some public discussion on this soon.”

The original timetable had been for the joint local plan – which helps determine land suitable for future development – to be adopted in February.

It gives the council greater control over developments and can block speculative or unsustainable developments much more easily.

For certain communities, this is crucial – particularly in areas considered attractive for development. Some areas are already facing the prospect of doubling in size.

The existing plan is out of date which means, under planning law,authorities are required to give more weight in favour of approving applications to meet housing demand.

Around 17,500 new homes are needed by 2036, according to drafts.

Conservative council leader Suzie Morley said the authority would consider an earlier virtual meeting than July.

Cllr David Burn, cabinet member for planning, added: “Progress is being made on the joint local plan.

“There is current uncertainty on the timescales and impacts of Covid-19. However, we will aim to bring a new local development scheme to the council meeting in July 2020.

“It may or may not be possible to bring a revised scheme before July.”

Officers confirmed councillors could attend virtual committee meetings such as cabinet or planning to ensure they did attend the mandatory six-month appearances.

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