So that’s what democracy looks like…
South Norfolk planning meetings in spotlight
Calls for councillors to ban the holding of political briefings immediately before planning meetings fell on deaf ears yesterday after members unanimously rejected officer advice on the issue.
Members of South Norfolk district council’s scrutiny meeting yesterday voted 12-0 against a report from the authority’s monitoring officer Tim Mobbs recommending that holding political ‘pre-meetings’ before planning committee sessions should be banned “in order to remove a potential obstacle to public confidence in the planning system”.
The report followed a complaint by members of the Carleton Rode Community Support Group last year following two planning meetings where applications for a gipsy traveller site in the area were considered.
Jim Wilson, from the Carleton Rode community support group and former chairman of Norfolk Police Authority, complained to the council following the second meeting which approved the plans last August about the “secret” political meetings taking place before the planning committee.
Mr Wilson said while there was no evidence the decision had been pre-judged, it was equally impossible to prove that it had not been and the meetings were not in the public interest. In the complaint submitted to the authority, he said that at worst they provide a “covert opportunity for pre-determination, bias, even hidden whipping of members’ votes”.
Mr Wilson said: “We asked the chief executive of the council to what the purpose of these meetings were and she said it was an exchange of information. But what information could be exchanged that couldn’t be exchanged in an open and public hearing?
“I’m disappointed that the main recommendation of the monitoring officer on councillors holding these before planning hearings has been overturned,” Mr Wilson added.
Though political pre-meetings are not illegal, the local government association has advised that the use of political whips to influence the outcome of a planning application is likely to be regarded as maladminstration.
No other district council in Norfolk holds them before planning committee meetings, while Norfolk County Council, stopped them following the election of the new council last year and concerns raised by a member of the public.
At yesterday’s meeting, Christopher Kemp, scrutiny committee chairman, temporarily stood down from the post so he could speak out in favour of the current system.
“Our group rules make it quite clear there can be no pre-planning discussions, however the main planning committee has to do other things as well such as determine policy issues,” Mr Kemp said. “There is a danger that it is open to misguided interpretations, but you do not know about what private conversations there might have been, whether it is at a group meeting in someone’s house of down the pub.
“We are not open in the sense the public can come, but we are open in the sense we are telling the public we are having these meetings.”
Murray Gray, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said the monitoring officer’s report was quite finely balanced.
He said the purpose of the pre-meetings was not for members to be whipped on which way to vote, but to provide an opportunity to share information and raise policy questions.
“If we didn’t have group meetings, you wouldn’t necessarily stop members discussing it by phone or by email,” Dr Gray said. “The main planning committee is the guardian of policy and it’s important to understand what the policy is and what the argument is for overturning it. Some times you can clarify issues like that.”
Councillors instead agreed that future agenda papers will make it clear that the way members intend to vote should not be discussed at pre-meetings.