‘A completely perfect pickle’ - Councillor Deb Roberts hits out over South Cambridgeshire District Council’s planning process
South Cambridgeshire District Council is “in a completely perfect pickle” over its planning process, an opposition councillor has said.
The authority has announced there will be delays to planning applications while it awaits a session of its full council to convene on April 2 to amend its planning process.
The council has been challenged in the High Court on the legitimacy of its process for determining which planning applications are decided by elected councillors and which are decided by officers.
Prior to the legal challenge, the decision over whether an application went to the planning committee was taken by the chairman of that committee, a non-executive councillor.
On February 12 the council amended the process – or intended to – via the planning committee to shift the power to an officer, the director of planning Stephen Kelley.
The council says that in both systems the decision of either the chair of planning or the planning director is made in consultation with the other.
But the campaign group Fews Lane consortium, which brought the original legal challenge, then made a further intervention, threatening another challenge and alleging it was unlawful for the council to change its constitution by any means other than a vote at full council.
The Liberal Democrat leader of the council, Cllr Bridget Smith, said after the meeting on February 12 that changes were made to the planning deferral process “to remove any legal ambiguity”.
The cabinet member for planning, Lib Dem Cllr Tumi Hawkins, originally defended that decision when the Fews Lane Consortium queried its legitimacy.
But Cllr Hawkins then issued a second statement saying: “Although we believe our constitution is clear on the matter, we want to be watertight. To do this we will be taking a report to full council on 2 April for a final decision.”
Independent councillor Deborah Roberts has now hit out at the council administration, saying they have left the planning process and residents “in limbo” and behaved “arrogantly”.
“South Cambs don’t seem to know their own constitution,” she said. “They have got themselves in a completely perfect pickle.”
She said: “I’m afraid it’s because this current administration seems to think that it knows all and the general public knows nought and they just ignore them and ignore the parish councils.
“I understand they were warned about this issue last autumn. This whole thing could have been avoided.
“The Lib Dems on planning are getting too big for their boots too quickly. They need to take a step back and take a deep breath and they need to take proper legal advice.”
And she said “it’s quite clear that a lot of the parish councils are very unhappy about how delegation is being done”.
Cllr Roberts also queried the council’s communications throughout the ordeal. She said the council appeared to reject the charge it had done something wrong, while appearing to concede that it needed a further vote in the full council.
She likened the council’s communication with councillors over the issue to the difficulties associated with getting meat from a crab or lobster.
And she also raised fears planning applications may now go over the head of the council and to the government inspector and warned of the possibility of further legal fees to come.
She said those responsible for the planning “saga” should “consider their positions”.
In response, Cllr Smith said: “Shortly after we took over at South Cambs, we initiated a full review of the constitution of the council that we had inherited. This is painstaking work and it is now reaching its conclusion. The resulting document is much better and more clearly presented.
“It is unfortunate that at the moment some planning decisions that are called in by a parish council or local member will be delayed. However, we are taking this action to avoid a risk of additional delays for applicants caused by further legal challenges to our decisions.
“We will be carrying out a full review of how the planning committee operates with the planning advisory service. Whilst we always consider parish council comments, the review will look again at this and give us some options. As we don’t want to hold up the adoption of the new constitution, we will do this separately.
“The council has been the subject of some legal challenges on this matter. In order to be sure that the council is acting legally, we have sought external expert legal advice. Regrettably, the cost of this has been £3,725.”
The council said it could not say if it is likely to incur further legal costs as it will depend on factors outside of its control.