Council planning process should ‘manage expectations of residents’

Coun Cliff Hughes, cabinet member for planning at South Ribble Council
Coun Cliff Hughes, cabinet member for planning at South Ribble Council
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A raft of recommendations have been put forward to improve South Ribble Council’s planning services, and to ‘manage the expectations of residents’ with regards to the ‘constraints’ of the process.

South Ribble’s scrutiny committee has compiled a list of suggestions which would help engage members of the public and councillors more when planning applications are submitted in their areas.

Scrutiny member Melvyn Gardner said: “We wanted to assess the level of the council’s planning service and look at how it can be improved.

“We found that generally it is a good service, but there is always room for

“We recognised the importance of engaging with members of the public more effectively.”

Among the recommendations are:

- Councillors receive a more detailed and structured training programme to enhance their role in the planning process and how they manage the expectations of residents.

- The planning manager puts in place a system for alerting councillors to potentially contentious planning applications and at an early stage with relevant pre-planning application discussion.

- The planning committee chairman should summarise for the public why a decision has been taken, provide feedback on the public’s key issues and help to manage the expectations of residents with regards the planning process.

- Look at how best community engagement in planning could be incorporated effectively into the My Neighbourhoods approach.

- A user-friendly leaflet is put together for applicants and those consulted on planning applications to explain the process in more detail, to manage the expectations of residents about the constraints and framework within which the council operates.

The planning review was debated at a full council meeting recently, before it was discussed by the scrutiny committee again last week.

The committee is waiting for a written report from the cabinet member for planning and housing, Coun Cliff Hughes, in response to the recommendations.

Coun Hughes said: “We need to look at the ramifications and impact on staffing, but I think we can work on most of them.”

The review report comes as councillors recently argued over the amount of input they should have during discussions of controversial applications at planning committee meetings.

Leyland councillor Bill Evans, who sits on the planning committee, raised a point about councillors speaking out against housing plans on land which has already been formally earmarked for homes.

In particular, he mentioned the large plot of land in Farington Moss, known as Site W in the council’s Local Development Framework.

“Can you imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, I and the rest of the planning committee were requested to ‘stand up and be counted’ and refuse the application?” he said. “The council had already agreed to put housing on Site W.

“Every time I and the other members of the planning committee sit on planning we stand up and be counted. We can only sit on planning after we have completed the formal training and I for one take a dim view of councillors not on committee playing to the gallery and misleading the public into thinking that there is a reason to refuse an application when there is not, and making the public think that we on planning are the baddies.”

In response, Coun Warren Bennett said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in rasing concerns about plans, even if they fall within a site allocation.

“We shouldn’t automatically accept an application just because it’s in a site allocation.

“We should be allowed to speak our minds, particularly when it affects our residents.”

Coun Cliff Hughes, cabinet member for planning, said: “I agree that members play a crucial part in the planning process, and I would encourage you all to get involved, especially when in its your neck of the woods.”

Another suggestion from scrutiny is for a 12-month trail whereby, when planning officers ‘feel there are balanced pros and cons to an application, no recommendation is made to the planning committee’.

At the moment, officers provide evidence to the committee to support whether an application should be approved or refused.

One planning committee member argued that omitting a recommendation would not be the best idea.

Coun Donald Harrison said: “I don’t agree with that – I think it’s always good to get advice from trained professionals.”