Posted: 28.07.21 at 08:49 by Coalville Nub News
Two North West Leicestershire District councillors have raised concerns that committee members are being coerced into passing planning applications.
One planning committee member told Coalville Nub News that the accusations were ‘concerning’.
The committee were discussing changes to the constitution when Cllr Richichi - the district council chairman - made his opinions known, with Cllr Clarke adding further comment.
As a result, both were told that the impartiality of council officers should not be questioned and that the comments had moved into ‘dangerous territory’.
Both councillors were replaced on the planning committee a year ago.
Cllr Richici asked for ward councillors to have a say on important planning decisions in their area - a suggestion which will now go to a cross-party group.
Cllr Nigel Smith, chair of the planning committee, also defended himself against the comments made.
Cllr Richichi told councillors.“There’s very few people who have learnt about how this council planning system works in the past four years than I have.
“I’ve seen so much coercion, it beggars belief.
“I believe that democracy in the planning system has been eroded to a point that we don’t need a committee any more.
“The ones who are prepared to speak out against planning officers decisions were removed from the planning committee.
“And other totally inexperienced members were invited to join.
“This is the situation we’re in now.
“When there were 17 committee members, the debate was quite heated, but the decision was come to by a unanimous decision - everything was aired, now it isn’t.
“The ward member is the only person who knows what his or her electorate wants and what the area deserves or does not deserve.
“Their views should be paramount.
“Public concern is very rarely considered seriously.
“They can have no end of complaints, but it’s ‘we’ll flow through this’.
‘There’s always been a need for a planning reason for a call in.
“What I’m proposing is that the decision to call in is not left with the chairman, who should be totally impartial, and an officer.
“I’m suggesting a ward member be involved.
“With the same capacity as the chairman.
“I believe that would be fair to every ward.”
At this point, councillors were told to be careful about the remarks being made.
But it was suggested that ward representatives are not always members of the planning committee, and that the idea may not work.
However, Cllr Richichi responded: “We’re taking about changing the constitution. And that’s part of it.
“We are being told we should support the changes here, that’s coercion.
“We have been told that in the past, the ward member has no say.
“A decision is made by an officer and chairman, ward members have not been invited to fight their corner.
“But now he can it appears. I want that noted that he can play a part.”
Cllr Smith added: “I don’t agree with what Cllr Richichi has said. I don’t expect him to.
“When a member calls something in, we will say ‘yes it will be discussed’.”
But Cllr Richichi said: “It’s opened up a can of worms, there are real problems since the planning system was changed three years ago.
“My feeling is that it’s eroded a democratic process we did have - okay, the meetings went on for quite a long time, but every avenue was explored as to whether it should be passed or rejected.
“But we’re in this system and either we go for change or carry on going down the route we’re on.”
Cllr Smith then said: “We’re digging an almighty hole here, I can assure you as chairman of planning, I have never once lobbied any member to vote in any specific way.
“I’ve never done it. I have never coerced anyone, I put forward what I think are the correct facts at the end of the discussion.
“We all know that planning is incredibly emotional. People will want their views to be maintained.
“If we’re not careful, you’ll be having application after application where people are trying to protect a view which isn’t relevant.
“Refusing an application leaves us wide open to an appeal which you could lost and that could cost this council hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“I think the system works far better now than it’s ever worked over the past 30 odd years.
Cllr Clarke then added: “I’m not casting aspersions or anything against any person.
“But I have a couple of instances which have caused concern for me as a ward member.
“Matters were decided, not by committee, but whichever way, one was two properties - monstrous sized - which neighbours were complaining about.
“There was a valid reason for it to be called in, it was refused.
“Every item that is posted in our ward seems to be a matter that will be dealt with by delegated powers, by officers.
“The first line puts off calling it in.
“Then myself and Verge got kicked - metaphorically speaking - about refusing an application, we were told it was cost thousands to - and we were castigated.
“That went to appeal and the appeal was lost.
“But we were almost forced to vote for it, and the appeal did not cost us money.
“It was the residents we were supporting in our particular area. I don’t want to go back to my ward and say a building went up because two people said it was okay.”
Cllr Richichi then said: “It is coercion when we’re told it will cost the council £200,000 if we lose an appeal.”
But Cllr Smith replied: “I have never once have I said, if we lose this it will cost us money. That’s something we’ve never done.
“It used to happen - but that was four years ago.
“If anyone can tell me of a meeting where I have quoted a cost, then please let me know.
“This should go to the cross-party group where we can have legal advice.”
Councillors were then told that officers are duty bound to give members advice about the implications of certain decisions. But committee members are the ultimate decision makers.
It was added that any more comments and concerns about members of the planning committee would not be appropriate.
Labour Councillor and Planning Committee member Cllr David Bigby said: "The accusations of coercion are very concerning as the Planning Committee is quasi-judicial and is supposed to be absolutely free from any political interference or bias."
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