To consider a reduction in the Membership of the Planning Committee.
Note - The Monitoring Officer and Independent Member had agreed that all Members of the Planning Committee be provided dispensation in relation to this item of business on the grounds that they considered that, without the dispensation, the number of persons prohibited from participating in any particular matter would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business. Those Members of the Planning Committee present remained connected to the meeting and took part in the discussion and voting on the item.
Councillor Pete McSweeney, Chairman of the Planning Committee, introduced the report, first referring to proposed changes in the recommendations contained therein. The first was a change to recommendation (2) so that it referred simply to “the political groups represented on the committee” instead of the “three political groups”. The second was due the resignations announced earlier in the meeting and the need for Council to note, as a result, officer advice that the changes did not alter the revised allocation of seats to the new Planning Committee as shown in the table at Appendix 2 to the report and, in addition, that groups who had not yet submitted their appointments needed to submit them to the Monitoring Officer following the meeting. Councillor McSweeney took the opportunity to offer thanks to Councillor Morrell who, as Vice-Chairman of the Planning Committee, had provided Councillor McSweeney with help, support and, above all, friendship during his time on the Council.
The report referred to a Peer Review of the Planning Committee that had taken place in 2015 and which had identified a number of areas of good practice and some suggestions which, if adopted, could provide enhancements. The scope of that Review had included addressing the size of the Committee which was made up of 18 District Councillors, with typically up to 14 Members attending meetings, with no substitutes being permitted in line with the Council’s operating procedures. It had been understood that this was the largest Planning Committee in Cumbria. It had been stated that, whilst a committee of this size obviously allowed for a significant number of the Council’s overall Membership to be potentially engaged in this really important decision-making process, it had to be questioned as to whether having a committee of this considerable size actually allowed for, and encouraged, appropriate forms of interactive engagement and constructive debate. The Planning Advisory Service generally recommended that planning committees should ideally be made up of about 12 Members. In line with that viewpoint, they had observed that, in reality, with a smaller number of Members actually being in attendance, the Committee appeared to function very effectively. The Planning Advisory Service had, therefore, recommended that when South Lakeland District Council came to reviewing the size of its Planning Committee, consideration be given to whether a slightly more manageable number of Members could potentially allow for better engagement, whilst still encouraging active participation. It had also been suggested that use of trained substitutes could also be a potentially useful “tool” in relation to a reduced Committee size and that appropriate advanced notice of anticipated apologies would allow their attendance at the pre-Committee site visits, etc. At that time, Members of the Planning Committee, had been of the view that the size of the Committee should remain at 18 Members and had resolved to make no recommendation to Council to change the size of the Planning Committee.
Through the Customer Connect Programme, the Council was transforming the way in which services were delivered to customers. With this in mind, it was considered timely to re-examine the Membership of the Planning Committee, also having regard to the previous recommendation of the Planning Advisory Service. It was also understood that a more recent review by the Planning Advisory Service carried out in January 2020 would also recommend the reduction in the number of members of the Committee. Statistics for the past three Municipal Years showed an average attendance of 14 Members at meetings of the Planning Committee. In 2020, South Lakeland’s remained the largest Planning Committee in Cumbria, although some of the Cumbrian authorities allowed substitute Members.
It was felt that a reduction in the Membership should allow for more tailored and targeted training, thereby producing a more expert Committee. This would facilitate better focussed debate and the ability to conduct business more efficiently and effectively. A smaller Planning Committee would ensure more consistent decision-making in accordance with legislation and policies. At a time of the Council being required to consider its resources and expenditure, the financial savings were highlighted.
The 2015 Review had suggested that trained substitutes be identified for the Planning Committee and it was proposed that, for a period of 12 months, and to be reviewed at the next Annual Meeting, alongside the reduction in members of the Planning Committee substitutes be identified for the Committee, one each from each of the political parties. They would receive training prior to attending meetings of the Planning Committee and take the place of the Member from the same political party who could not attend the meeting.
The Constitution provided that the appointment of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of standing committees would be made at the Annual meeting. The Planning Committee could, if the appointment was not made at the Annual meeting, appoint the Chairman and Vice-Chairman. Emergency Non-Executive decision 008 dated 29 April 2020 resolved that all appointments from the Annual Meeting 2019 continue until the Annual Meeting on 19 May 2021. The reduction in number of Members of the Planning Committee did not, therefore, impact upon the current Chairman of the Committee.
Councillor McSweeney, in presenting the report, referred to the Planning Committee as a “shop window” for the Council. He explained how the service had improved in recent months, with a new Manager, Planning Officers and Enforcement Officer, as well as new legal support. In addition, the Planning Committee membership included experienced and dedicated Members across all political groups. He explained the need for continuous improvement and advised Members that, since inclusion and publication of this report on the agenda, the Planning Advisory Service had made some further recommendations as a result of the Review carried out in January 2020, suggesting that the Planning Committee should be made up of 20% of the full Council membership. Bearing this advice in mind, as well a number of complex calculations, it was felt that a membership of 14 would provide the best balance. Councillor McSweeney also raised the need for future examination of the call-in and the public speaking processes in relation to planning applications. He stressed the fact that the proposals related initially to a 12 month trial period.
Having moved the recommendations as amended, Councillor McSweeney was seconded by Councillor Giles Archibald who also emphasised that this would be a pilot for 12 months, with an opportunity for review. He thanked Councillor McSweeney and officers for their work and informed Members that, subject to approval, the Liberal Democrat Group would be offering one of its places on the Planning Committee to the Council’s Green Party Member, Councillor Judy Filmore, who was a diligent Member of the Committee and who it was believed should be given the opportunity to contribute.
Councillor Tom Harvey, Leader of the Conservative Group, put forward an amendment for an additional proposal, (5) “that the implementation of the changes be delayed until the next Council Elections or until the next Annual Meeting of the Council, whichever is sooner.” He explained that his Group broadly supported the changes, however, felt that in light of the recent Council resignations, the current Covid-19 situation and with the potential for Local Government re-organisation, they should be put on hold. Councillor Harvey also drew attention to the fact that 14 Members and three Substitutes would not result in any ease in administration for officers. Councillor Pat Bell seconded the amendment.
Councillor McSweeney was unwilling to take Councillor Harvey’s amendment on board, being keen to move forward with the proposals and create a “best of breed” service.
Members debated the proposed amendment, a number speaking against, feeling that the changes were long overdue and that there was no point in delay. The need to ensure a geographical balance in the Membership of the Committee, irrespective of the numbers, was raised.
The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) read out the proposed amendment in full. Councillor Andrew Jarvis, Finance and Resources Portfolio Holder, raised a Point of Order, pointing out that the entire motion had been read out and suggesting that the amendment on the table was, essentially, an additional Recommendation (5). The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer), however, clarified that it was the whole of the original motion, as amended, which was to be voted on, although the additional Recommendation (5), to delay the implementation, being the fundamental point. If passed, this would then become the substantive motion, with all other elements being relevant and voted upon. Councillor Harvey concurred.
Members voted by roll call on the proposed amendment, which was lost, and the discussion returned to Councillor McSweeney’s substantive motion.
In response to a query, the Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) clarified that the proposal regarding substitutes was not for a pool but for one for each political group. In addition, the figure of 14 Members with the introduction of substitution was felt to be manageable, with the current average attendance being 14 Members. Councillor McSweeney reiterated that fact that the proposals were for a trial period of 12 months and that if the proposed arrangements did not work, then they could be reviewed. A query was raised with regard to the outcome of the most recent review carried out by the Planning Advisory Service and Councillor McSweeney explained that there had, so far, only been a verbal response in relation to that review. A draft report had, however, been received in relation to the 16 July 2020 meeting of the Planning Committee which had been observed by the Planning Advisory Service and it was hoped that this would be released to Members within the next few weeks.
The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) drew attention to the fact that the recommendations did not specifically state that the proposals were, initially, for a 12 month period. Both Councillors McSweeney and Archibald agreed for this to be included within the substantive motion.
The Chairman asked the meeting if the motion was agreed. There being no dissent, it was
RESOLVED - That
(1) the following be approved:-
(a) with effect from the September Planning Committee, a reduction in size of the Membership of the Planning Committee from 18 to 14, to be reviewed following a 12 month trial period; and
(b) the appointment of named substitutes from the political groups represented on the Council and as outlined in paragraph 3.10 of the report, those substitute Members to receive an allowance of £250;
(2) in light of officer advice received at the meeting regarding councillor resignations, it be noted that such changes do not alter the revised allocation of seats to the new Planning Committee as outlined in the table at Appendix 2 to the report (groups who have yet to submit their appointments to submit them to the Monitoring Officer following the meeting); and
(3) the Monitoring Officer be authorised to effect the necessary amendments to the Council’s Constitution to reflect the changes.