Wednesday, May 28, 2008

East Area Committee

Thursday week is the first meeting of the East Area Committee I am due to attend since being elected. The City Councils area committees were set up by the Lib Dems around 2003/2004, and are designed to bring decision making closer to the people. So I will get together with other Councillors from Coleridge, Romsey, Abbey and Petersfield (because we have so much in common!) at 7.30pm on June 5th. Members of the public are welcome to join us at Cherry Trees Day Centre, St Matthews Street.

Trouble is, very few members of the public do turn up at these meetings - 30 would be a good turnout, or to put it another way, 30 people attend, over 24,000 residents of the relevant areas choose not to attend. Most of those who do attend are already actively involved in their local communities - I attended these meetings regularly last year as a Council candidate. Coleridge residents are much more likely to know what is happening in the ward and be able to influence events by reading our regular in Touch newsletters and contacting me personally. This would also be much more efficient - the meetings were originally budgeted to cost Council tax payers £100,000 per year - as members of the public are frequently almost outnumbered by paid Council officials and the Police who also attend, I dare say this cost has gone up since.

But Area Committees aren't merely a waste of Council Tax payers money - they actually seriously harm planning decision making, because at the end of the meetings, some local planning applications are decided by the Councillors. These are the applications too important to be decided by Council Officials, but not strategic enough to be decided by the full planning committee. This has a number of unfortunate consequences, beyond the mere fact that important decisions are often being made after 10pm at night by Councillors who could have been working all day.

Firstly, even though East Area Committees are held every 8 weeks, this is still enough to introduce significant delays in approving planning applications - the main planning committee meets monthly. This means targets aren't met for determining planning applications on time, which can cost the Council money, and in cases such as the Mill Road Tesco fiasco, can result in controversial decisions being appealed straight to the planning inspector in Bristol due to failure to determine the application in time.

But the key flaw is that all local Councillors are expected to be involved in deciding local planning applications - even if they are not interested in planning or adequately trained or experienced. As a result, the Council's Code of Conduct for Councillors prohibits them from taking a view on the application in advance, and therefore severely restricts the assistance they can give local residents to oppose or support a particular application.

For this reason, despite a keen interest in planning matters, I object in principle to the Area Committees deciding planning applications, and will refuse to take part in this part of the meeting.

In conclusion, the cost to Council Tax payers of these meetings is out of all proportion to the benefit, and in the case of planning decisions actually makes things worse. I think they should be scrapped, planning decisions moved back to the main planning committee (which should sometimes meet in the evening where there is a particularly controversial application such as Tescos), and replaced by ad-hoc ward or area meetings where there is a particular issue of keen local interest.

UPDATE: The agenda is now available here.

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