We always welcome a Letter to the Editor to share with our readers – unsurprisingly they don’t always reflect the views of this publication. If you have something you’d like to share, get in touch and of course, your considered comments are welcome below. This from Jon Young, chair, Niton and Whitwell Parish Council Planning Committee. Ed
A worrying pattern is emerging on the Island over the treatment of controversial planning applications by paid officers. Not to put too fine a point on it, I fear we are witnessing the slow death of democratic planning controls.
In at least three recent cases, it seems clear that IWC ward councillors have been denied the right to have the Planning Committee decide on consent or rejection, as a result of the Council’s constitution being interpreted in a way which has not happened in the past.
Democratic process is being undermined
Whether this is as a result of a turf war between elected and unelected officers, or an attempt to save on the costs of committee meetings and avoid the risks of appeals, I do not know. But whatever the explanation, the democratic process is being undermined by plans being nodded through when there are very good reasons not to do so.
In my own parish, approval has recently been given to allow a development of holiday chalets to remain open year-round, removing a restriction which closed the site for ten weeks in the winter. The fear in Niton is that permanent opening will enable non-holiday occupation, for which the site is clearly not suitable; and that the Council lacks the resources and/or the will to enforce holiday-only use.
Relevant material concerns
Our ward councillor, Dave Stewart, raised many relevant concerns, including highway safety, and asked for the application to be “called in”, i.e. decided by committee. This is not a commonly-used procedure, but it is one covered explicitly in an apendix to the Council’s Constitution, which provides for call-in where the ward member raises “relevant and material planning considerations, that cannot be overcome by conditions and/or revised drawings.” It adds: “The head of planning shall determine whether the reason(s) for requesting call-in to planning committee is/are relevant and material to the consideration of the application.”
To the surprise of all of us in Niton, Cllr Stewart’s request was overruled and the application was approved by the head of planning, Mrs Wendy Perera, in late September. The Council’s chosen means of enforcing holiday use was to require the site to maintain a visitors book and make it available for Council inspection.
Within a very short time of learning of this decision we heard that the Cowes Costa coffee shop application had been approved, in spite of a call-in request by Cllr Paul Fuller. And, in a third case, Cllr Graham Perks has recently been overruled after trying to get committee scrutiny of a plan to build two substantial properties on a vacant plot in Ventnor.
In all of these cases there can be no doubt that “material considerations” have been raised by objectors, and by the ward councillors trying to represent them. There is a fairly well-defined checklist of material considerations laid down in planning legislation, and they include highway safety, parking considerations, economic impact, and scale/dominance – all of which have been invoked in the three recent examples.
It seems clear, therefore, that the planners are relying on the more subjective elements of the Constitution paragraph to deny the councillors’ request. “Relevant” (consideration) is not an easily-definable concept, and its definition is apparently being left in the hands of unelected officials – a logic which, it seems to me, could easily reduce the caseload of the Planning Committee to zero.
Likewise, the caveat that an application need not go to committee if objections can “be overcome by conditions” needs to be (but isn’t being) read in the context of the Council’s extremely poor record of enforcement, which isn’t helped by the present financial constraints but in fact goes back over many years.
Zero chance of enforcement
In the case with which I am most familiar, the Niton holiday chalets, I rate at approximately nil the chances of effective enforcement in the event of a breach of the holiday condition.
This sidelining of local opinion may have been going on for longer than we realised, but it does now seem to me to be systematic. I don’t detect any party-political shenanigans – witness the cross-section of councillors involved – but I do think we need all the Councils’ political groups to give their urgent attention to putting a stop to this creeping erosion of accountability in planning matters. Otherwise, what is the point of committees such as the one I chair, and the time and effort freely given by those who sit on them?