(Requested by Kent Association of Local Councils – Tonbridge and Malling)
The Panel noted the arrangements in place for Planning Committee site inspections. These had been circulated with the agenda and explained that the purpose of a site inspection was for Planning Committee Members to view the site to provide context for the application proposals.
East Malling and Larkfield Parish Council expressed deep concern that the rights of parish councils, neighbours and other third parties had been diminished and felt it was wholly unacceptable that there had been no formal consultation with parish councils. In addition, the Parish Council queried whether the Borough Council was acting in a fair and reasonable way and challenged the decision making process. Reference was made to a recent request for information which had yet to receive a reply. It was requested that this now be treated as a formal FOI.
There was serious and in-depth discussion regarding these arrangements and it was observed that site inspections were not occasions for any debate, comment or the expression of views by any party. Members felt it was important that the Planning Committee were allowed to simply view the site. Any queries arising could be put to planning officers who would answer them or note for further investigation. Members of the public or other third parties had no ‘right’ to attend such site inspections as they had an appropriate right to make written representations and speak at a Planning Committee meeting when decisions were made.
It was emphasised that the new procedure made provision for a relevant Parish Council representative to attend as an observer and their position as a statutory consultee was not affected nor was their right to speak at Planning Committees removed.
Finally, it was reported that the changes were ones of clarity for the benefit of Planning Committee Members, the proper conduct of site inspections and to ensure the robustness of decisions ultimately made by the Planning Committees. It was not a change that affected how the Borough Council would look at planning applications and engagement with members of the public would continue through appropriate consultation.
Many Members welcomed the clarification of the protocols around site inspections and felt they represented a sensible approach with a fair compromise reached. Previous arrangements had created the potential for undue influence to be exerted in an uncontrolled environment.
The Kent Association of Local Councils (Tonbridge and Malling) believed that an appropriate position had been reached regarding the attendance of parish councils at site inspections, with their position protected. Other organisations had the ability to make representations and speak at planning committees in the normal way.
The value in the public attending site inspections, although thought beneficial by some in highlighting concerns about impact to neighbouring properties, was not appropriate as these views could be expressed by speaking at a Planning Committee. It was also observed that local Members had a detailed knowledge of their wards and an understanding of potential impacts on residents.
In summing up the discussions, the Chairman, as Leader of the Council, was not persuaded to change position as extensive research had been undertaken by Officers, the comments raised by KALC regarding parish council attendance had been taken into account and the arrangements were sound and took account of best practice and guidance.